West Coast Road Trip Part 4: Big Moon Over the Highway

Before I began road tripping in Australia, I relished the idea of driving on long stretches of highway through the empty outback, the road in front of me like a shimmering oil slick streaking towards the horizon. I couldn’t wait to be in that enormous landscape, a tiny person in a tiny car with nothing but sand as far as the eye could see.

That was until I drove north towards Port Hedland on the North West Coastal Highway. I nearly expired from boredom. Don’t ask me why, because I managed the road from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy without a problem and it was even longer and more monotonous than this one. Perhaps because by the time we were approaching Port Hedland we’d already been on the road for eight days? Maybe one week of red earth and stunted trees is the most I can handle. I was almost hoping a kangaroo would dive nose first in front of the car just to give me something to do.

We were maybe about 30km away from the next rest stop and I couldn’t wait to get off the road and lie down for the night. Behind me in the mirror I could see the sun was setting. Ahead there was nothing but road and red, and a curious, glowing pink mound. Some kind of man-made construction, I thought, for its curved top was far too smooth to be natural. But then it began to rise up from the ground, gradually, like a hot air balloon, and I realised it was the moon, enormous and pink. I have never seen anything like it before in my life, although Dave told me that the moon often appears magnified when it’s low on the horizon.

Moments ago I had been so weary of the landscape, thinking that there was no more pleasure left for me in outback driving. Now, watching the moon rise and deflate and change in hue from pink to yellow, I felt as though I could stay on that road forever. Too soon we reached the rest stop and the moon went back to normal, a hard white disc in the sky.

West Coast Road Trip Part 3: Breakdown in Coral Bay

We were half way up the west coast when our campervan broke down. We tried to start it up one morning and it just wouldn’t go. Luckily it happened in Coral Bay where I had a good phone signal and there was a mechanic only half an hour away.

He looked inside the engine and whistled. There were two wires attached to the battery with alligator clips. “Look at that! The positive wire has been touching the metal casing. It’s welded itself on. That’s how you burn a car to the ground.”

But that wasn’t what was preventing the campervan from starting. The mechanic was stumped. He fished around inside the engine pulling out wires and looking for fuses. Eventually he left with assurances that he would be back once he’d got hold of a wiring diagram for our vehicle.

We had been planning on spending a few hours snorkelling on the Ningaloo Reef but now we had the whole day at our disposal. Boy am I glad we had that extra time. It was amazing, like being inside a giant aquarium.

We swam through clouds of tiny, iridescent blue fish that floated up from coral towers. Pancake flat neon yellow fish, spiky lionfish and metallic green parrot fish flitted in and out of the reef, oblivious as we drifted on the surface of the water above them.

In places the coral bloomed from the seabed like huge stone lettuces. Sometimes it was piled up like stacks of petrified firewood, or bulged into cratered domes like brains suspended in formaldehyde. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colours darted through their curious playground, wriggling into holes and diving under arches.

We returned to the caravan park salt crusted and exhilarated shortly before the mechanic reappeared. This time he was able to find what was wrong with the engine and fix it.

The next day we could continue with our adventure.

West Coast Road Trip Part 2: Dolphins at Monkey Mia

The next morning we got up early and snuck quietly out of the parking bay where we had spent the night. That is, we got out as quietly as we could in our ancient, growling campervan.

We refuelled and headed back to Geraldton, lesson learnt. After that, we always made sure we had plenty of fuel and water and I regularly texted my parents to update them on our itinerary.

The following night we stayed in a 24 hour rest stop at the side of the highway. These rest stops are the best kind of free camping you can get on the west coast: you don’t have to stray off course to get to them, nor do you need a four wheel drive to access them. There are public toilets there and plenty of people around for company.

We made it to Monkey Mia on our third day on the road. This is a beach resort where dolphins swim up to the shore three times a day to be fed by the rangers. The beach was also visited by pelicans and emus.

Praying Mantis

Forget the spiders, forget the snakes. The praying mantis I found in the bathroom the other day has got to be the single most terrifying creature I have encountered in Australia so far.

I thought it was a broken leaf lying on the floor and was about to pick it up when it rotated its heart shaped head towards me. Oh, the horror! What I had thought was the stem of a leaf was one of the mantis’ twiggy spriggy legs. I walked round it and its head swivelled to follow me. It was aware that I was there and it was watching me. Another insect, realising that a human was nearby, would have scuttled off into a dark corner of the room by now. It gave me the creeps.

I coaxed it into a bucket and nudged the bucket out the front door with my foot. I got the bucket right to the far end of the veranda then I kicked it over and ran like hell back to the house. The next morning the mantis was sitting by the front door like a faithful dog. It counted us out of the house with a shake of its head.

What really got to me was that it seemed so horribly intelligent. Insects are already superior to humans in many ways: they have three times as many legs, can carry a thousand times their own weight on their backs and can survive nuclear bombs. If their brains were just a little bigger they’d be good contenders to take over the world. I wondered if it was plotting something.

Somewhere deep in my memory two long disused synapses sparked: didn’t praying mantises bite off people’s heads?! Just for a moment I forgot that our praying mantis was the size of a hair pin and that I could crush it easily under the heel of my boot if I wanted to. All I had in my head was this vision of a giant carnivorous insect with slavering jaws which I couldn’t quite connect to any real experience or science lesson or wildlife documentary. It was a moment of cold panic, until I realised that I was thinking of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the one where Xander has a crush on a beautiful new teacher who turns out to be a praying mantis type monster in human disguise.

Well, I felt a little foolish I can tell you, but also relieved. The praying mantis looked fairly revolting to me but at least it was probably harmless. And it didn’t stick around for very long; that evening when we got home from work it was gone.

Tasmania Photo Diary Days 4 & 5

Day 4: On our second day on the Peninsula Circuit we hiked over Mt Graham to Wineglass Bay. We’d been lucky with the weather so far but by the time we reached the bay, dark clouds were gathering overhead. It poured on the last stretch of the walk back to the car park.

Day 5: We detoured from the coast road up into St Mary’s and headed to the South Sister Lookout. As we climbed up the rocks to the summit I heard what I thought were pipes playing. The noise turned out to be a combination of the wind zinging through the telecommunications cables and the high pitched buzz from a radio mast at the top. It was dizzyingly high.

Back on the road to St Helen’s we pulled over to snap some black swans.

In St Helen’s we treated ourselves to some Tasmanian oysters before heading to a free campsite in Humbug Point.

Tasmania Photo Diary Day 3

Day 3: Driving up the east coast of Tasmania I frequently had to steer round dead wallabies on the road. We saw plenty of live wallabies at Freycinet National Park which were so used to humans they barely looked up from eating when we walked past. Please universe, may they never end up as road kill.

 

The Peninsula Circuit is a two day hike taking in some of Freycinet's beautiful isolated beaches.

It was a challenging walk where we sometimes had to scramble up slippery granite river beds or hoist ourselves over fallen trees. I had to laugh when we reached the campsite and saw this sign. Has anyone ever managed to get that far with a rifle tucked under their arm? Or a poodle for that matter?

This is where we set up our tent at Cook's Bay after completing the first part of the Peninsula Circuit. The love heart made of shells was already there when we arrived. I imagined a young couple had camped there before us and sat looking out over the sea as the sun went down. It was definitely a very romantic spot.

Night Markets and Bats

The Christmas period in Australia is a strange thing. The fake fir trees in Federation Square and the star Christmas lights strung along Bourke Street seem incongruous with the baking heat of the city.

I’m not a huge fan of Christmas songs at the best of times but in this weather they’re downright irritating. There’s no way we’re getting a white Christmas here, Bing Crosby, so just keep on dreaming.

Instead of the Christmas markets prevalent in Europe, Melbourne has night markets throughout the summer months. At the Suzuki Night Market sangria is the weather appropriate alternative to mulled wine and instead of all the usual Christmas themed tat that no one wants, there are stalls selling funky designer clothes and jewellery and bags.

The Abbotsford Convent Night Market is a much smaller affair. I went there last Friday with Grace and Alex and Anna and after a loop of the stalls, which didn’t take very long, we went for a stroll through the grounds. Lilac blossom popped against the red brick of the convent buildings and lemon yellow light pooled at the base of the sky.

Standing alone in the grounds, admiring the view of the city against the backdrop of the setting sun, we saw something that was neither Christmassy nor summery but perhaps a bit Halloween-y. Apocalyptic looking, even. At first we thought the black specks swirling across the sky towards downtown Melbourne were birds but then, when we looked more closely, we realised they were bats. There were hundreds of them gliding out of the trees and flowing in a never ending stream towards the city. It was breathtaking.

And all the while that we gazed up at sky the only sounds were the chirps of birds and insects. It was hard to believe that only a short distance away a crowd of people was gathered at the night market. I wonder if any them looked up and saw the silent stream of bats slicing under the moon, of if they didn’t notice at all?

Kangaroos

When I arrived at Karoline and Peter’s house I thought it looked like exactly the kind of place where you might wake up to a kangaroo tapping on your bedroom window with its paw. It’s a single story timber construction with a veranda going all the way round, set in the rolling hills with not a neighbour in sight.

Of course the wild kangaroos don’t come right up to the house, but they do get pretty close, cheekily drinking out of the dam in the night. It seems amazing that there are these huge beasts living out there in the hills, somehow managing to stay hidden during the day. Karoline said that you sometimes see them sleeping under trees, so I stood on the veranda and scanned the hills for any kangaroo shaped lumps. Since I’d never seen a kangaroo before, only in photos, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

When Karoline suggested that I go for a walk one evening to look for kangaroos, I didn’t really expect to see any. I set off up the hill with a pair of binoculars and a camera, into the half light. The birds were making a fearsome racket, screeching and yelling. I was worried they were going to dive bomb me. (At this time of year the male magpies get very aggressive. Peter told me they have 12 to 15 times as much testosterone as normal. Cyclists wear antennae in their helmets to keep them away and some people even put fake eyes or sunglasses on the backs of their heads because they won’t dive bomb you if you are looking at them. Apparently it’s no fun unless they have the element of surprise.)

I was walking along with my face pointed up into the tree branches, making sure the birds knew I had my eye on them, when a truck passed. I returned my gaze to normal level for a moment and just out the corner of my eye I saw something moving, and a kangaroo bounded out of the field to my left into some trees. I think I said “wow” out loud. I’ve been having a lot of “wow” moments here.

I continued walking to the end of the road, to a paddock where Karoline said the roos sometimes gathered. Over the shrieking birds I heard a sound like an elastic band twanging, faintly musical. I think it may have been some kind of frog. I waited for a bit as the evening got darker and noisier, then, since there was no sign of any kangaroos, decided to walk back.

When I was nearly at the house I stopped. I’m not sure why. I must have sensed something but when I looked around, everything was still. Then a shape separated out from the trees and peeled away, and I saw it was a kangaroo gliding like a carousel horse across the field.

Gumnuts and the Scourge of Blackberry Bushes

Given the title of this post, you might think that I am going to tell you about another favourite children’s book. But no, I actually want to talk about these peculiar looking knobbly things which I spotted in a bowl in the kitchen the other day. I asked Karoline what they were and she told me they were gumnuts from the gum trees in the garden. She had collected some to see if they were ready to give up their seeds.

Australia has big problems with non-native plants that have been introduced and, away from their natural environment which keeps them in check, have spread like wildfire, choking out the native plants. The seeds of gum trees are very fine, those little hair like things that you can see around the gumnuts, and it’s difficult for them to penetrate the thick European grass to implant in the soil. Karoline and Peter collect seeds from their gum trees and give them to volunteers who grow them in plant pots. The resulting seedlings are returned to Karoline and Peter for them to sell locally. It’s cheaper than buying young gum trees from a nursery and the added advantage is that these seedlings are ideally suited for the local soil. Because not only are there hundreds of species of gum trees, but even within species there are genetic variations which means that seedlings from local trees will fare much better than seedlings from the same species of tree from another area of Australia.

As well as being involved in this tree planting scheme, Karoline is also a member of the local Landcare Group. There are Landcare Groups all over Australia, run by ordinary members of the community who care about the local environment. Karoline’s group recently received funding to help clear the blackberry bushes from an area of land along the creek. This is because blackberry bushes, an entirely inoffensive, even welcome addition to a British garden, are a scourge in Australia. They spread rapidly over large areas forming impenetrable thorny thickets which wreak havoc on native vegetation. The term blackberrying here does not mean picking some delicious fruits to make jam, it means tearing out and destroying blackberry bushes. That’s right. In Australia blackberries are evil. It takes some getting used to.

Karoline told me, and I believe that she’s right, that the area where she and Peter live has benefited from the arrival of humans. They’ve reintroduced native vegetation, removed weeds and generally made sure that the land is at its best. The one bit of inadvertent disruption they have caused, through building dams to provide the properties with water, is an increase in the population of wild kangaroos which now have a plentiful supply of water to drink.

Into Regional Victoria

A few days ago I left Melbourne and ventured out into regional Victoria. I’ve decided against the garlic factory and a fruit harvesting job for now in favour of a help exchange farm stay. This means that I live with an Australian family in their home and work on their land in return for food and board.

To count towards a second working holiday visa, specified work must be carried out in regional Australia. When I first heard this, I imagined regional Australia to be a vast expanse of wilderness, parched earth stretching out to the unbroken horizon (how exactly I thought it would be possible to get any fruit picking done in the barren landscape of my imagination is unclear). It turns out that pretty much the whole of the country, aside from the cities of Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, is classified as regional Australia. Even Bendigo, about 25km north of my current location is considered regional, and it has a population of around 90 000 and is well appointed with shops, cafés, galleries and entertainment facilities.

Living with a host family is wonderful. The couple I’m staying with now, Peter and Karoline, are kind and knowledgeable. In the few days I’ve been here I’ve learned so much. For example, native Australian trees are predominantly eucalypts or acacias and there are hundreds of species of each. Peter took me on a tour of the grounds and showed me the different types of gum trees (eucalypts) that they have. He plucked a leaf from each so that I could crush them in my fingers and smell the different scents ranging from medicinal eucalyptus to citrus. Standing there with the broken gum leaves in my hands reminded me of something I adored as a child, but I’ll come back to that later.

Walking through the grounds, Peter remarked that he was sure that Nature was female – Mother Nature not Father Nature – because there doesn’t seem to be any order to where the plants grow. They just spring up anywhere they like, completely randomly and resisting any attempt to control them. It struck me because I’ve often thought the exact opposite. The natural world seems to me to be so skewed in favour of males; the fact that females are burdened with child bearing is, in my mind, enough evidence that Mother Nature is no woman.

Peter and Karoline have an orchard in a field above their house where they grow everything imaginable: apricots, peaches, figs, cherries, apples, pears, almonds, lemons, walnuts, olives…It’s the wrong season for harvesting at the moment but over the next few months the little nubs of fruit will grow and ripen and even by the end of this year the cherries will probably be ready to pick.

The four or five raised vegetable beds walled in by railway sleepers produce carrots, onions, garlic, beetroot, lettuce and herbs. A large area has been cleared to plant more vegetables, and I’ll be helping with that while I’m here.

Over the last few days I’ve been planting shrubs which will act as a wind break to protect the rows of berries, and mowing the long grass to keep the snakes away. When Peter was showing me how to use the lawn mower (it’s one of those sit-down ones) he told me about a previous help exchange worker they had who didn’t recognise the sound of the blades straining. They continued to mow and the belt that connects the engine to the blades exploded. How awful, I thought. I’ll make sure that I don’t do anything as careless. Shortly after that I reversed over a water tap in the lawn mower. It went off like a geyser. Luckily Peter and Karoline are very forgiving. ‘Don’t worry,’ Peter said, standing next to the sodden marsh I’d created, holding the shorn-off tap in his hand. “I’ve been meaning to put a post in next to that tap for ages and now you’ve given me an excuse to do it.”