Around the Island

Night Driving

You could tell it was going to rain.

You could smell it in the musty dankness lifting from the soil.

You could feel it in the heavy touch of the wind, fast and strong, around the hedges and rough pruned street trees.

You could see it in the green tint edges of the clouds above, sealing in the sky, shutting out the early evening stars.

As I reversed the car out and away from the house, the first heavy drops began to fall. By the time I stopped at the third set of lights it had become heavy.  Real rain.  Winter rain. 

All around me the world was full of mirrors; water sheened surfaces reflecting the light.  Shop lights on the pavement, broken by passing figures.  Car headlights on the road.  The on off flash of my indicator in the paint sheen of the car in front. 

Waiting at the pedestrian crossing a man balanced a stack of pizza boxes in one hand and held a wine bottle in the other.  He kept his head down, shaking the rain from his eyes.  The passenger door of the car in front of me opened and a young woman stepped out, slammed the door in obvious anger, and walked away.  It may have just been the rain, but she seemed to be crying.  Pizza man does not even look up.  Cars scatter as an ambulance weaves its way through the traffic.  Flashing lights and reflected sounds.  Loud and unnerving, the ambulance passes.  Somebody’s day is far, far worse than mine. Pizza man walks across the road. The young woman is nowhere to be seen.  The heavy rain kicks up off the road in crater bursts.  I turn left.

The next set of lights proves less eventful.

On the freeway the rain seems heavier.  Truck spray.  Car spray.  The tic toc swish of the windscreen wipers.  The rumble of tyres over the changing road surfaces.  Rain driving.  Night Driving.

The shapes of the buildings by the road blur, hard edges become soft.  Bright colours become dull.  A Scottish voice sings, and I join in to pass the time.  I would rather not be night driving in the rain. 

By the time I reach Phillip Island I am hungry and ready to sleep.  I find something that passes for food and head to bed.  Gulls call in the distance and water drips outside the window.  Slowly the day fades. 

Local Knowledge

Breakfast arrives quickly.  A simple plate of scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes and toast.  Leaf tea from a pot.  Milk in a small white jug.  Nothing fancy, but it was all I needed.

The road up towards Churchill Island was closed, but I had a date with a guide at the bridge, marked with an X on a hand drawn map.  A car drove down the closed road and pulled up next to mine – I had found my guide, even if I was a few minutes late.

Back at the bridge we planned the morning, which I thought was a day.  First here, then there and finally back to here.  I didn’t really mind – I just wanted to be out and about with somebody who knew the lay of the land and the turn of a feather. 

Every patch of short grass seemed to hold either a crowd of Purple Swamp Hens or a couple of Cape Barren geese.  The geese, grey with delightful darker dots, cropped down the grass until is was bowling green short.  Only the piles of half processed grass – fluid and rather unpleasant – restricted the playing of improvised games.   Males and females of this, one of the world’s rarer geese, are hard to split but for one thing.  The female – domestic goddess that she is – tends the nest with its cargo of eggs, while the male – all patriarchal disdain and stiff upper neck – walks the boundaries and sees off intruders.  The fact that they seem to be the perfect size for the table may account for their rarity.  Only recently have their numbers begun to recover.  Only recently has the fall of the feathers across their back, and the splatter of dark spots on their wings, been considered better than the taste of their meat.  This seems to be a good thing.

After a brief drive along largely empty roads we arrive at the koala centre – an area of old gum trees and safe protected grasslands.  A space in which koalas can do what comes naturally without the interruption of dogs or men with chain saws.  While these charming animals are so, so watchable, it’s birds I have come to see.  In the slightly de-leafed crowns of the trees honey-eaters and wattle birds call and fly.  A family party of Kookaburras gather and laugh on a sunlit branch.  On the leafy floor Superb Fairy Wrens search for food and keep an eye on each other.  A party that argues and squabbles like most human families, the male bright blue, the females and youngsters dull shades of grey and brown.  Evolution has chosen display for one and the practicality of camouflage for the others.  I laugh at the reversal – my wife wears the bright colours, and I think that blue is flamboyant, and choose green if possible.

In the lower branches a thickset bird sets its beak to finding food – seeds maybe, insects, anything but leaves.  With a colour scheme of yellow, white and black it’s distinctive enough to be named even with a glance – it’s a Crested Shrike Tit.  With a heavy bill and a muscular looking demeanour it’s clear that this is a powerful bird.  The male – all bright colours once more – seems far bolder than the female and flickers through the lower branches, giving wonderful views and drawing comments of appreciation.  The female rustles in the background, higher in the trees and more hidden for view.  According to the guide books, this bird is locally common – which must mean I have been looking in the wrong locations. 

In a natural pool, set between the joints of two high branches, Rainbow Lorikeets wash with splashy wing beats.  High in a nearby tree  Galahs  sit and watch the watchers go by.  Open spaces in the canopy illuminate bright patches on the woodland floor.  Dark and light.  Green and grey. Sun warmth and slight shadow chill.

Back in the cars we head towards the coast.  On the sand, Hooded Plovers run in the distance, backwards and forwards with the waves, clockwork, wound by the fetch of the wind and the breaking of the water.  Ravens and Oystercatchers form patches of darkness, some on the rocks, some on the sand.  Gulls ride the waves on silver wings.  The wind smells of salt and seaweed, cast up on the beach by last night’s high tide.  I watch the open sea for a chance of albatross, or seals, or whales.  Chance passes by.

Waves break to form caves and rough-cut headlands around a series of small islands called the Nobbies.  They look, according to local legend, like the islands of the same name in Scotland.  This may be true; but I cannot tell.  When large waves rush into a cave the air inside is compressed, pushed together to form a force that, when released, sends a spray of foam and mist into the air.  It’s a blowhole and it looks like the sea and the rocks are breathing in and out.  Deep breaths of sea air, fresh from the Southern Ocean.

Where soil remains on the steep cliffs there are tunnels and holes.  Some are old and overgrown, some look fresh trodden and open. In the places where the soil has been lost, ripped away through the lack of plants and passage of damaging machinery, small wooden boxes, complete with neat rectangular open doors, replace the holes.  From a few of the openings black and white faces meet the light.  One face shakes from side to side, a beak flick of tiredness or maybe irritation.  For all their comedy appeal penguins are as inscrutable as the next bird – and Fairy or Blue Penguins are no exception.

But these penguins have little to be irritated about – the Summerlands Peninsula where they live is as close to penguin heaven as you get in Australia.  This is a piece of land bought years ago with the sole purpose of giving penguins peace on Earth.  In the past there were far more colonies around the coast of Phillip Island – maybe ten or more - but one by one they were lost to dog and cats, cars and houses, so that only one was left.  Without action the penguins of Phillip Island were doomed. 

But then something strange happened – a government took a farsighted and expensive decision to protect the last penguin colony. To favour the birds over the developers and the homeowners.  The land where they lived, and the land around it was bought and managed for the penguins. This decision may have been driven by economics as much as ecology, for the penguins are central to the island’s tourist trade.  But whatever the motivation, the outcome has been good for the birds; their numbers have recovered, and they are (at least for the moment) safe.  Under these circumstances you would have thought that they would at least pop out from their holes for me to see them. 

But, sadly, not.  A daytime penguin is a home-body, safe and sound underground. 

But what seems sadder still is the realisation that today, our politicians would probably just let the penguins die and claim they were victims of market forces or the poor management of the last government.

Waves pound heavy on the shore.  Thoughts weigh heavy on my mind.  Deep in their sheltered burrows the penguins sleep the sleep of the protected, and knowing this lifts my spirits.

I end where I began, by a bridge from an island to another – from Phillip to Churchill.  Pelicans roost in a huddled group.  Black Winged Stilts stab and forage in the shallow waters.  A White-faced heron waits and waits by the water’s edge.  A peregrine flashes overhead, spreading a wave of consternation.

Politics be damned, while there is wildness there is still hope. 

The peregrine returns as I depart.

It has been a fine morning.

The Sound of One Cow Mooing

It’s only when you go back into the country that you realise now noisy cites can be.  Even if you wake in the night, it’s rare for the background hum of cars to be silent.  You may jolt awake thinking, “what woke me?” to hear the hoo-ha wail of a fire engine or ambulance.  It may be the noisy clatter of possums on the roof, or the animated chatter of party goes, weaving their way home.  But it is rare to wake to anything resembling silence.

It was chill outside, but warm in bed.  Unfading bright light leaked through a gap in the curtains.   I could tell that it was a blue-sky day and that the scudding clouds of the day before had blown away.  And by the silence, I could tell we were in the country.

Then a cow mooed and the kids laughed at the comedy of the unfamiliar sound.  It did not have the deep resonance of the cartoon moo beloved of TV shows.  It was more a bellow of shock that spoke of ambush or surprise.  Almost inevitably the small people starting impersonating the cow.  Laughter. The world could no longer be described as silent.

Down hill from the back of the house, the rough green fields ran into a small wooded valley that hid a stream.  A wire fence, marked at its four corners with wooden styles, separated the garden from the field. Sal said she thought the styles looked English.  I said I thought they looked normal.  I suppose we were both correct.  If you ignored the calls of the Black Cockatoos and turned a blind eye to the gum trees, the landscape looked English.  A small landscape of folds and fields tended and farmed.  I started to remember the things I no longer see. Such a reaction is probably a form of landscape-sickness, rather then home-sickness, and I immediately feel somehow saddened by the intrusion of thoughts of there when I am here.   How long do I have to wait before the comparisons fade and I don’t reach for references well past there sell by date?  Landscape-sickness indeed.  

In the valley floor woodland, the trees were bent and old, covered in moss, with branches that reached down into the leaf-rich soil.  It was a place where you could hear water trickling and dripping even when you were stood away from the stream.  The damp greenery reinforced the vision of England.  A fleeing swamp wallaby shattered it.  Thornbills, tiny and suitably sharp, moved in talkative groups through the canopy.  Such places as this put me between two worlds – the world of memory and world of now.  My kids jump the stream and climb the mud formed path.  They are both better clothed and healthier than I was at the same age, but they both have the same desire as I did (do) to look into holes in the ground and wonder out loud about what made them.  They both collect eye threatening sticks and muddy shoes.  They both carry cut knees and scratched shins with unfashionable pride.  This place may remind me of my childhood, but to go there in my mind, when I am with them in their own world, feels like a form of abandonment.  I need to leave memory for another time.   I need to get my knees dirty too, looking down a wombat hole.  I need to leave the “do we go left or right?” decisions to them as well.  When all roads lead to Rome it does not really matter which way you go, because eventually, you will come home.

Above the damp of the stream bed the land opens to ferny heathland, studded with single gum trees and the occasional blow in birch.  On the open ground pellets of rabbits and wallabies have been left behind.  At a stone that forces its way through the soil an edge marker has been left by a fox.  The memories of the now and then blend with the evidence on here and there.  From the clearings on the hill there are long views over the sea towards Wilsons Prom.  In the crown of a mature gum tree a small flock of smaller birds half fly and half walk along the branches.  Individual birds spiral along the limbs, pecking here, picking there.  The birds are Varied Sitellas.  On a dull day these bird would pass for nuthatches, birds that do not occur in Australia. 

Cogs spin and something drops into place.  For all the differences between here then there, the nature of nature makes things the same.  Convergence from distance points to arrive at (not quite) a singularity of form and function.  The two birds, only distant relatives, have come to use the same niche in different lands.  Surely, in such ecosystem of interest there is a niche here for me as well.  Another wallaby spooks from cover.  The sitellas turn tail and fly away.  In the distance the black cockatoos call.  Interest enough I’d say.

That evening a blood moon rises through a heavy sky.  We see little but brief glimpses though breaks in the cloud.  The Moon looks purple and blue, like a two-day-old bruise on the road to fading.  The next night is almost cloud free and in the early darkness there is a better lunar show.  A fox walks over the lip of a slight hill and pauses, all concentration and bright busy tail.  It lifts its head to sniff the air, a short, dog like gesture.  Wood smoke and cooking smells.  Humans and maybe even a hint of whisky – Scottish, thick with peat and a second layer of smoke.  Whatever it smells, it’s too much for the fox, who turns brush and leaves.  Minute by minute the Moon creeps higher, painting the landscape with a pale silver wash.  Kookaburras cackle in the distance.  Burning logs shrink and settle in the firebox.  The chill air smokes my breath.  I step inside to warm air and bright light, as a cow moos goodnight to anybody who cares to listen. 

Early the next morning the dairyman’s clock calls again.  The low gruff call a counterpoint to a high pitched twittering that flows all around the house.  The staves of the wire fence are dotted with musical note welcome swallows.   Each with their own space, they don’t huddle like the pictures in kids books and bird guides.  Some look softer and fluffier than their not too near neighbours, I suspect they are this years birds, heading north from Tasmania for the first time.  An autumnal internal exile for this spring bird.  At some unhuman signal the birds leave almost as one, leaving the fence to a scarlet robin and his wife.

At the gate out on to the dirt road we have a choice – left or right.  Lighthouse or hill.  We choose to go right, we choose the hill.

Mount Bishop overlooks Tidal River, the busiest part of Wilsons Promontory National Park.  The car park at Tidal River is busy with people and vans.  Some people are coming back from sandy beach walks, but most are getting ready to start a journey.  We just want to buy some jelly snakes – the Lembas Bread of our family walks.

At the beginning of the walk we check we have enough water and (of course) jelly snakes.  Everything is present and correct as we walk along the start of a well made, gravel crunchy, path.  Grass-trees, which are neither grass nor tree, line the side of the paths.  The rough leaves only let you run your hand one way along them – like stiff cat hair, rubbed the wrong way.  I am surrounded by the shuffle crunch footfalls of my family.  In the distance I can hear the muffled crump of waves breaking over rocks; of the sea at war with the land.  Birds call from the dry brown leaf litter, from the open branch treetops and the open blue sky, high above.  Such days are rare.  Such days are a gift given to us by nothing and no one.  But they are gifts none the less.

The path leads into the cool shadows of tall timber and keeps our backs to the sea. To the left the land slopes up and away towards the top of Mount Bishop.  To the right the land falls steeply away towards a sometimes stream.  A view of the roots and the canopy from a single path.  The anchor and the sail. 

At a path junction we stop for a drink of water and a taste of way-bread.

A left at the junction starts the climb up the hill.  Cutting the contours gently the path weaves a seemingly uncertain path towards the summit.  It’s not a tall hill and it’s not a long path.  Purple mushrooms with a slick sheen distract us from the journey.  Parrots in the canopy call to each other, in bright feather conversations.  As we round the shoulder of the hill the sea comes into view, studded with rounded, granite islands.  Bare patches of the same stone form parts of the path, smoothed by the passage of feet in some places, thick with moss and lichen in others.  The bones of the landscape show through the growth.   It’s a stone that calls to be touched, by more than just feet.

At the summit we sit to eat simple sandwiches and take in the view. Both are world class.  Both feed a necessary hunger.

Finger headlands stab outwards to the sea, webbing beaches of pale sand fill the gaps between the digits.  To the south lie the islands of Tasmania and the open waves of the southern ocean.  This is place to breathe deeply on the cleanest of clean air, even if, deep down, I know that it holds the faint taint of industry.  A silver gull drifts overhead, drawn no doubt by the chance of crumbs and gifts of crusts.  A dozen shades of green, washed with grey, blue and white.  Golden yellow rocks pounded down to golden yellow beaches.  A light wind, which if it held colour would be silver.  A bright autumn day.  The distant beaches hold few people, and the path to the summit was almost empty.  We saw just two other families on the path to the top – and on the journey down we see none at all.

On days like this is there is barely any need for the jelly snake incentive.  But the lack of need increases the enjoyment.

Down on one of the beaches the sand is noisy underfoot.  The whim of tide and time has sorted the grains, so that all of the sand on Squeaky Beach is of a similar size.  And when they roll over each other – pushed by sliding feet – they squeak in answer to the movement.  Most of the few people who are on the beach can be seen walking, flat footed, in the dry beach top sand.  And the beach squeaks back its answer.

People gather at one end of the beach; human moths drawn to the spectral charm of the still close car park.   With at least a kilometre of beach to choose from, people sit within blanket flicked sand range of each other.  Two hundred paces down the beach there are few scuffed footprints and even fewer people.  The shouts of children fade behind me.  The waves hiss over compact sand.  I walk to the far end of the beach to look for sooty oystercatchers.

A trio of these chicken sized birds stands on the waves cleaned rocks at the end of Squeaky Beach.  Waves run up deep gullies between rounded rocks, and the birds seem happy to keep water between them and me.  They have impressive red beaks and a ring around the eye – otherwise they are a silky black that holds onto the light with a surprising vigour.  In certain lights they can look like bird shaped black holes moving about on an illuminated field, a kind of shadow puppet.  The birds are pushed down onto the un-favoured sand by a passing of a group of walkers.  As the walkers shrink in the distance the birds give up their wave rhythm beach run and fly back to the rocks.  It’s clear where they feel at home.

I leave the birds to their oysters, their rocks and the waves.

Halfway back towards the crowds, a brown blocky shape moves slowly at the angle where the beach turns to dune.   A person stands next to the shape, holding their arms in front of them in strict point and shoot camera stance.  The blocky shape ignores the person.  I sit down a few meters away and the shape ignores me too.

Once a wombat is feeding it may be one of the more single-minded animals in the world.  Fine green blades push up through the pale sand, and the wombat grazes with a surprising intensity for an animal with such a small brain.  A small crowd soon gathers; wombats are the star animals of Wilsons Prom.  Most people do as I have done and sit down to watch.  The wombat ignores the crowd and keeps eating its sandy snack. 

A child – a girl – arrives and slowly walks closer and closer to the wombat, which ignores her.  She holds out her hand in classic “pat the cute animal” stance, and moves forward again.  Remarkably the wombat does not move as she pats it on the back.  More people arrive, and a general feeling of surprise grows at this display of marsupial tolerance.  The girl’s sister and mother arrive and join in the fun – which pushes the wombat over the edge of its tolerance range.  It moves a couple of metres away at surprising speed, stops and beginnings feeding again.  The mother gives each of the girls a bag of carrot sticks, which they start to throw towards the wombat. It completely ignores their gifts, which upsets the girls. They throw the remaining carrots at, rather than to, the wombat, which continues to ignore their offerings.

At this point my blood pressure is only a little above normal.

Now the first girl throws down the empty carrot bag and strides towards the wombat and tries to pick it up.  This is a brave, even foolhardy move, given the relative sizes of the two animals involved.  Unsurprisingly the wombat does not take well to this advance and dashes up a wind blown gouge in the dunes.  Both girls and the mother chase after it!

At this point my blood pressure is rapidly moving into the near fatal region.

My kids arrive just in time to see the wombat turn tail and run into the dunes.  When a nine year old looks at you and says, “Why are they doing that? Are they stupid?” you know that there is some pretty dumb adult behaviour on show.  

I can hear calls of encouragement and squeals of excitement coming from on top of the dunes.  I’m sure none of this noise is coming from the wombat.  I’m at loss what to do.  Challenge the behaviour and risk conflict that will solve nothing.  Ignore the behaviour and walk away feeling like a moral coward.  I tread a middle road and talk to some of the people around me – they are as shocked as me.  One man, my age, but taller, says very little.  I ask him what he thinks – and he says that the “girls are just having fun”.  I say that I would not mind hearing the wombat’s side of things.  For a brief second he smiles, but then he works out that I’m not joking.

He walks away, to be joined by the adult and the two young girls; his wife and kids it seems.  I can’t help but think that some people should watch more TV and play more computer games.  It really would be better for everybody.

There are kangaroos and emus on the way home, but no more wombats.

At the gate off the dirt road I wonder what we would have seen if we had chosen the lighthouse.