Wednesday 25 November 2015

Marvellous Maria 2: Devils Below, Heaven's Above

It’s tempting to say that that night on Maria Island was a black one; all black even. But that would only be true in a metaphorical sense given that the stars were out in abundance. No, it was my early morning check of the score in the Rugby World Cup final that turned the night “All Black”.

Lynne and I had been in New Zealand during the early parts of that tournament, and we’d even joined locals watching a live broadcast of the game between New Zealand’s “All Blacks” and the lowly-ranked Georgian team. Yet despite my huge soft-spot for our neighbouring country, now that we were playing them for rugby’s ultimate prize, I couldn’t help but want Australia’s “Wallabies” to pull off an unexpected win.

[A young Tasmanian devil near the Penitentiary]
It wasn’t to be. So I was slinking back to my bunk when I suddenly heard a noise that uncannily matched my fierce disappointment. It was devils growling! Some young imps, as baby Tasmanian devils are called, had incurred their mother’s wrath. She was growling and screeching in the fearsome manner that gave these carnivorous marsupials their European name in the first place.

One of the park rangers had told us that a devil family had taken up residence directly beneath our room. They are part of a concerted government effort to re-settle disease-free devils on Maria Island. On mainland Tasmania, the devil facial tumour disease has reduced their population by over 80%. But here on Maria, there’s a chance for healthy devils to live and breed naturally without the threat of the horrible and contagious cancer.

There’s much more information, including ways to get involved, on this site Tasmanian Devils

In response to the mother devil’s screeching, I could hear the panicked imps scuttering along the wooden verandah outside our dorm. Whether they were obediently rejoining their mother in the den or running for dear life, I’ll never know. This rugby tragic had some serious sulking to get on with.

In the morning I masked my sporting disappointment with the busy-ness of preparing for our walk to the island’s highest mountain, Mount Maria (709m). I’d somehow never been there, and the fine warm morning looked ideal for the long trip there and back. With luck we might get some of the renowned views over the isthmus and down to South Maria.

["Not again?" Stefan hits the cloud near Mt Maria's summit]
One of the fascinations of Maria is the wide variety of its landscapes. Over a relatively short distance we had walked through dry pasture, open woodland, tall forest and out onto boulder screes. It had all been uphill, and we were very glad to stop and fill up our water bottles in a small stream in a wetter patch of forest.

Mike and I had kept a running commentary on which birds we were hearing. They too were changing as we ascended: skylarks and cuckoos of the lower country gave way to honey-eaters and pardalotes as we rose, and finally ravens, cockatoos and currawongs nearer the top. By the time we’d reached the scree we were disappointed to see cloud lowering over the summit block. Given the cloud-forest style vegetation near the summit, we shouldn’t have been surprised.

[Group shot with cloud: Mt Maria]
We clambered on regardless, eventually topping out on the blocky summit in thickening cloud and strong wind. We took the obligatory summit shot, grabbed a quick lunch in the semi-shelter of some rocks, then turned around for the scramble down.

That all may sound disappointing, especially for Tim and Stefan, who had suffered claggy summits two days in a row. But it was a delightful walk, and an almost literal example of the journey outshining the destination.

[At least we knew our altitude]
Still, it was a long walk back, and we’d been on the go for nearly 7 hours by the time we staggered back into the Penitentiary’s quadrangle. And there we found our neighbours had become a virtual paparazzi on the lawn outside our dorm. Their target? The mother devil and her little imps were showing themselves off, relaxing in the late afternoon sun near our verandah.

[Butter wouldn't melt: Devil imp and mother on Maria Is.] 
The imps looked rather more relaxed than they had very early this morning. As they gave butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth looks, their bad behaviour seemed just a fading dream. And now that I had walked off my rugby disappointment, I was ready to wake up to this amazing situation. How many other places can you share a quiet moment with such stunning wild animals?

Friday 13 November 2015

Marvellous Maria 1: A Sweet Spot

I’m part of a chain of passengers passing luggage off the Maria Island ferry. I might note how apt it is using a chain-gang to get this job done, given the island is a former convict settlement. But I’m too busy chatting with the man next to me. I’ve discovered he’s a first-time visitor from Melbourne. So, like an over-enthusiastic travel agent, I’m busy selling the wonders of Maria Island.

Interested in wildlife? This place has it in abundance: kangaroos, wombats, devils, rare birds … (and on I go) … Like history? How many other places can you stay in a convict prison – in comfort – while learning all about everything from Aboriginal history to convicts and rogue industrialists … (but wait, there’s more) … Fancy a walk? Where do I start? (He’s probably wondering when I’ll finish!)

I can’t resist going on to mention the island’s amazing geology; its wonderfully untouched beaches; its stunning variety of vegetation. If only I’d be quiet for a moment, he might possibly experience the special serenity of this traffic-free island.

Okay, I don’t work for national parks any more, but it seems there’s no stopping this rusted-on fan from enthusing about Tasmania’s wonderful wilds. And marvellous Maria (pronounced like Mariah Carey’s first name), is one of our great national parks.

I eventually remind myself I’m not at work, and release the captive Melburnian. Our group wanders up to the Penitentiary, where we’ve booked a double dorm room. We claim bunks, unpack our bags, set up our cooking gear (there’s no power in the “Pen”) and make ourselves a cuppa. Then to the serious business: we settle on the verandah and let the quiet seep into us.

Fan-tailed and pallid cuckoos call; wombats stroll by; the sun shines; and in the distance waves whisper on the sands of Darlington Beach. Not for the first time on the trip I find myself believing the hype about this place. Thomas Lempriere, a convict era clerk of the Commissariat Store, called it “one of the sweetest spots in Van Diemen’s Land.” As we recline on the verandah, I wonder if even some of the convicts might have recognised they had it (relatively) better than those elsewhere.

Later in the afternoon we discover that Tim has never been to the top of Bishop and Clerk. So four of us head towards the 620m mountain “just for a look”. But I know two things: firstly that Tim will be determined to get to the top, and secondly that neither Mike nor I will bother this time, given that we climbed it last visit. Stefan’s attitude isn’t yet clear, though we suspect he’ll carry on with Tim.

[Walkers above Fossil Cliffs, with Bishop & Clerk behind] 
The walk first winds through beautifully open grassland, alongside high cliffs with vast views over the sea towards Freycinet National Park. Mike and I are cajoled into walking on “just to the top of the next rise”and then “just to the beginning of the steep bit”. The walk is so stunning, the vistas so grand, the birdlife so prolific, that it’s no trial to succumb. But eventually we divide into two groups, Tim and Stefan for the top, Mike and I for an amble back via another route.

The two of us, both keen birders, are immediately rewarded with a sighting of some swift parrots. Small, swift, green and endangered only begins to describe these lovely birds. The clearing of the forests on which they depend, particularly blue gum forests, is a major reason for their decline. So it’s a privilege to hear their high pitched tinkling call before they sweep off – swiftly – deeper into the forest.

[A wedge-tailed eagle soars overhead] 
No sooner have they gone than we’re visited by a curious wedge-tailed eagle. It circles a few times, before flying off at speed, pursued by a raven. Forest ravens are not small birds, having a wingspan in excess of one metre. Yet this one looks both small and brave up against our largest bird of prey, with its nearly three metre wingspan.

On our way back we stop to observe a common wombat: an animal seemingly at the opposite end of the speed spectrum from a parrot or an eagle. Yet I’ve heard that these rotund marsupials – dubbed the bulldozers of the bush – can, if threatened, run at close to human sprinting speed. To put that in perspective, a wombat can run at up to 40kmh; Usain Bolt can reach 45kmh.

[A common wombat, not running anywhere] 
We’re back at the Penitentiary and have been tucking into wine and cheese for some time before Tim and Stefan stagger back. They’ve made the top of Bishop and Clerk, ‘though the clouds have covered the peak and obscured all but glimpses of the amazing views. We raise a glass to them both, part commiseration, part congratulation. Better luck tomorrow?

[Relaxing in the sun near the convict-era chapel] 
Mountain tops, cliffs, wildlife and a place to relax together: and that’s just our first afternoon. This truly is a sweet spot!

Monday 9 November 2015

A City Remembers its Wild Past

Returning to Sydney is a bit like visiting an old girlfriend. At first it’s all about the former attractions. The eyes and the smile sparkle; there’s an easy familiarity; a shared history; some comfortable conversation. But it’s not long before the other side of things surfaces, and you remember why it didn’t last.

[Sydney's Harbour Bridge from Barangaroo] 
It’s late spring. Sydney’s unmistakeable warmth and humidity enfold me, along with the scent of gardenia and jacaranda and diesel and a thousand other introduced scents. The bird sounds too are from everywhere as well as here. Indian mynahs, English sparrows, European turtle doves and rock pigeons happily mix their calls with homegrown rosellas and lorikeets and currawongs.

It’s an eclectic mix that reminds me Sydney belongs to the world as much as to Australia. Yet though I was born here, she isn’t “mine” any more: not even when the upward, spiralling call of rainbirds (eastern koels) transports me to my former life. The unmistakeable sound rises into the burgeoning cloud, calling up the thunder and rain that locals know will follow.

[A rainbird (eastern koel) calling up a storm] 
Lynne and I sit by the open window of a Vietnamese restaurant, grinning at the coming storm. Are we the only ones enjoying this? We admit that we miss Sydney’s mini-monsoons: the build up, the bullying loom of the clouds, the sudden shock of lightning, and that final chaotic deluge.

Childhood memories aside, I love these storms for their reminder of the wild. Even a city of nearly 5 million has to pause in the face of such power. Pedestrians shelter; cars stop; peak hour is on hold as rain floods the gutters, hooshing leaves and rubbish before it. When it all stops sodden piles of debris, with jacaranda bloom highlights, block the drains. In my childhood the end of such a storm brought the neighbourhood children into the streets to stage improvised boat races in the still-flowing gutters.

The following day we discover a wholly more surprising echo of the wild. We are visiting Sydney’s newest development, Barangaroo. It comprises 22 hectares of harbourfront land nestled between Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay. Most of the area was working dockland, and I recall it as an ugly clutter of ships, cranes and dilapidated buildings.

In reshaping its future, the designers have not entirely escaped that former clutter. Sixteen hectares of it is being transformed into bog-standard high rise office blocks of glass and metal. They thrust skyward the same as do towers in any finance district of any city in the world.

[Sydney's glass towers from Barangaroo] 
It’s the other six hectares that are bringing something both unique and inspiring. The Barangaroo Reserve is new open public space. Those last few words would be rare enough for a city like Sydney, where the dollar and the car so often determine what happens. But this is prime harbourfront land that hasn’t been open to the public for over a century. And now, suddenly, anyone in Sydney has another way to celebrate and enjoy its superb harbour.

The reserve has been opened for less than a month when we visit, but it is already attracting large numbers of visitors. Walkers, joggers, cyclists, parents with strollers, picnickers, and sticky-beaks like us, all join the gardeners and other workers still finishing off bits and pieces.

[Nawi Cove, one of Barangaroo's re-imagined bays] 
The scale and design of the reserve is breathtaking. I have said there’s an echo of the wild, and that’s what surprises us most. The old shoreline has been re-established – or re-envisioned – using thousands of blocks of local Sydney sandstone. The vaguely Lego-like effect is already softening as time and tide do their work. Revegetation work of vast proportions – more than 75 000 individual plants have been used – has started to turn the area into genuine green space. But more than this, by using mainly local endemics, it has come close to showing visitors the kinds of plants that once thrived here.

[Sydney sandstone and a few of the 75 000 new plants] 
Of course it is not meant to be a replica of old Sydney coastal bushland. For a start there are concrete and steel sections, and paths and stairways criss-cross the reserve, partly to honour the industry of the last century. Yet there’s no doubt that the bush, the coastline, and the harbour vistas are the star attractions. They honour a bush past that dates back to the last ice-age, and to the Aboriginal people who lived here throughout the drowning of this former river valley.

And one other aspect of Barangaroo’s “wild” past is hinted at in its name. It seems that the Barangaroo after whom the place is named, was a powerful and feisty Cammeraygal (Aboriginal) woman. One story has her threatening to take a whip to an English soldier after he has flogged a miscreant in front of local Aboriginals. It’s a wild sense of justice we might wish to see more of in our era.