A Year (almost) in Australia
|Throw another... leg on the barby...|
From an open window near where I sit I can hear the squawk and screech of cockatoos. In the canopy of trees that shade the house from the strong hot West Australia sun, I see that Red Tailed Cockatoos. Their tails flash a brilliant red as the hot summer sun sets them alight from above. Against the afternoon sky of pale blue, it is quite striking. To my right on the desk is the stack of maps I used while cycling areas of this huge country. Looking at them jogs my memory of the places and people I became acquainted with. As usual, I am drawn to the wild places. The hills, valleys, vast plains and forests and of course, the coast and beaches. Much of it seen and experienced from the saddle of my bicycle.
How do I condense into one short blog post a whole year of bicycle travel on this huge continent? I can’t. This cannot be reduced to a sound bight. You would have to come here to believe it! This is a rough sketch of a whole year, a complete revolution of the earth around the sun. You’ll have to read the details in the book.
These are some highlights:
It is very beautiful here. But there are some staggering statistics. Australia supports hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna. It also has one of the highest extinction rates of any other country. It's been two hundred years since settlement, or invasion depending on your perspective. In that short span hundreds of endemic plant and animal species have disappeared. FOREVER! THAT SUCKS! It’s the same old story. Burgeoning population, suburban sprawl spreading like cancer, natural resource development and so on. But I digress. Where was I?
Oh yeah, GOBSMACKED! It’s a beautiful continent. And full of contradiction. The Kimberly of the north west comes to mind. A varied sandstone landscape is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. At first glance it was pretty intimidating. It reminds me a bit of the sandstone canyon country in the American Southwest. Harsh, rocky outcroppings give way to mysterious hidden valleys and gorges. After some long days in the saddle breathing the dusty air, I’d find a clear pool of fresh water. Or I’d come up one of the enormous gorges with water thundering down rock cliffs. But unlike the American south west, this was all rain water. The country is dry in the cooler winter months. The hot summers bring monsoons and torrential rains. I had the good fortune to stumble into a small, family run “resort” and caravan park one day. I found it tucked into a nature reserve on the old road from Kununurra to Wyndham in Western Australia.
|Some boabs can live thousands of years.|
Turned out to be one of those little gems that only providence can lead one to. I wasn’t going to stop there. It was still early in the morning and for whatever reason I thought I needed to make Wyndham. I did actually ride past the driveway. But I heard a little voice in my mind that said, “Go back, check this place out”. It was pretty hot, even though this was the dead of winter. It had taken me three and half days to ride what I thought should have taken one and a half. I thought, "what have I got to lose? I'm covered in dust. I smell and my clothes are stiff with that special mix of salt and dirt from days in the saddle and camping in the bush. "OK", I said to myself. I turned around. Of course it turned out to be an oasis out there in that sparse and harsh country. The place had a swimming pool and a small but deep lagoon. There was even a resident “salty”. That’d be a salt water crocodile. Small by some standards, I had seen a couple of big ones from the safety of a bluff over the Ord river on my ride. Interesting phenomenon. When the rains come, the crocs swim and travel. They are sometimes a hundred miles or more from salt water. So all those great pools and gorges that run with water are beautiful but one must be very careful. I saw quite a few crocodiles up in that country. I stayed at the resort helping out for about three weeks. There was a billabong nearby with a bird blind. A billabong is an Aussie for an oxbow lake, an isolated pond left behind after a river changes course. They fill with water during the wet season. Apparently, it's also a clothing company. I went and sat in the bird blind for a few hours one day. I counted 25 or 26 different species of bird in a three or four-hours time.
I learned that it’s very important to pay attention to those little “intuitive” moments. So as not to miss an opportunity like that”. And of course the people I met and stayed with for several weeks were amazing. As we listen to each other’s' stories friendships form. We become like family. They change and enrich my life forever.
That is one of the beauties and benefits of traveling alone. It can be very difficult at times. The loneliness of the road, no one to blame but myself for a messy kitchen or wrong turns. But it’s easier to meet the locals, even though we seem worlds apart at first glance. Here is an adage that comes to mind. I probably saw it on Face Ache as my friend Jim likes to call FB. But when I keep this in mind, barriers fall away and I see people for who they are. “We are all just walking each other home”.
|Frogs can teach us much.|
The greatest tragedy may be the destruction of culture and the environment. It’s heartbreaking for me to think about the loss. 40 to 60,000 years of aboriginal cultural development is gone from memory. I can’t even imagine the scope of this collective wisdom. Knowledge gained through experience and relationship with country over eons. Blows my mind to think about how they survived for so long in the some of the harshest landscapes I’ve seen anywhere. But that's not surprising. As well travelled as I am, my world view is still limited and bounded by the western culture I grew up in. And I realize now how limited that world view is. Another good reason to travel and push my own comfort zone. I'm not talking about physical comforts either. That's easy to overcome. It's the challenge to my own assumptions and acceptance of what is "normal".
Early European explorers never thought to ask the original inhabitants questions? There seemed to be no curiosity about what the aborigines knew or what their world view was? That this arrogance persists in some folks is telling. I met a few white Australians who held onto arguments refuting aboriginal claims. Not just land claim and ownership but the deeper philosophical and practical approaches to living on the land. It is demeaning and deprecates 50-60,000 years of aboriginal knowledge and wisdom. I find it is too easy to simplify these ancient cultures. Nor can they be easily understood within the framework of western culture and ideology.
Spoken language is the universalized expression of a given reality within a culture. At the time of settlement by Europeans there were 250 languages in Australia. At least one hundred of them are gone now. Their survival is based upon their collective experience. The complex mystic and spiritual relationship folks had with their land. From what I have learned, many believe that they belong to the land and to each other. Not that the land belongs to them. There is a huge hole in western culture where this concept needs to be. People only survive in community. Individual conduct is by necessity based in rule and order. This in turn comes from beings more powerful than they. Handed down through story and song. Their creation stories go back and back and back. Thousands of years before any other current world religions. I know fuck all about the aboriginal cultures that once thrived here. I'm trying to fit it into my world view. This is an impossible task. I only have my immediate experience as a traveller in foreign country. My only exposure was to a few small populations trying to survive in a world hostile to such concepts. This hostility has led to deep cultural rifts and tears in the fabric of society. I could spend the rest of my life and half of the next one trying to understand what was here. And sadly what is being lost every single day. But maybe I'm too sentimental. Or perhaps it's all projection rooted in my own spiritual hunger to "belong to country".
I was accused of “projection” when I visited Uluru. I expressed an intuitive feeling about the presence of life force energies. To me it was rock imbued with spirit. But that's not unusual for me. All I can say is, “Go there”! See the rock art, feel the hot breeze coming off the rock and see the birds in the trees. Watch the dragonflies and bees flit around the water that accumulates in the pools in its shadow. Walk around its base and touch it. Feel it with your face, fingertips. Put your lips, one of your most sensuous body parts to its surface. Let it absorb you. Allow yourself to be absorbed.
Getting back to the cockatoos. They have become my constant companions here in the south west. Cockatoos and the ever present wind. So many birds and wildlife here. SO different from anything in my home country. Outside the window sniffing around in the leaf litter right now is a quenda. AKA short nosed bandicoot. I went to take a closer look. Reminds me of a rat. It’s bigger, has a longer nose and a shorter tail, very cute. It’s a possum. A marsupial, it gives birth to live young and then carries them around in a pouch. The possum in America is the only marsupial in the Americas north of Mexico. Australia supports 70% of the world's extant marsupials.
The iconic kangaroo is one of my all-time favorite animals.
Science estimates around 65 species once inhabited the continent of Australia.
I only saw seven or eight species at most. It is world’s largest marsupial
macro-pod (big foot). I find them both ridiculous and fascinating. They are perfectly
adapted to the driest continent on Earth. All I have to do is see one or a mob
and I chuckle. If you believed in God and the Judaeo/Christian creation story,
how could you not think God had a sense of humour? I know that farmers and
cattlemen don’t share my sentiments about the kangaroo. There is competition
from growing farm country and cattle stations. Here are some random facts:
Kangaroos, cannot move backwards. Kangaroos range in size. The largest at 90
kilos (almost 200 pounds) and 2 meters (six and a half feet). The smallest is
the Musky Rat kangaroo weighing in at 620 grams (less than a pound) as adults.
This tiny species sports opposable thumbs on its hind feet and a prehensile
tail. Large kangaroos can reach speeds of 60 k (37 mph) and can clear a
distance of 8 meters (26 feet). Locomotion is hopping. Hopping!!! The name
derives from the word ‘Gangurru'. A name given to Eastern Grey Kangaroos by the
Guuga Yimithirr people of Far North Queensland. Kangaroos are of cultural and
spiritual significance to many Aboriginal people across Australia. It’s not bad
eating either. A strong flavour and dense meat. Reminds me of eating bear. An
acquired taste I’m sure. Not really my cup of tea.
|Kangaroos can be found in families and large groups. Also called a mob. (Notice the joey in the pouch on the right side of the photo).|
Another favourite is the emu: Hilarious and curious. Endemic to Australia it is the second largest bird in the world. They can reach as tall as six feet. They’ve got deep, red eyes and feathers that look more like shaggy fur than feathers. It was the eyes that really caught my attention. If modern day birds descend from dinosaurs, the eyes are where I can see it. They don’t fly but they can run. Fast. Really fast! Up to thirty miles an hour. With a running stride of almost ten feet. I encountered a small family one day while cycling a trail in South Australia. I was on the Mawson Trail in Rawnsley Park Station near Hawker in the Flinders Ranges. I stopped in the shade of a tree to consult my map. While staring at my map I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see five or six birds, all taller than I am with eyes fixed on me and coming closer for a better look. Of course, once I looked at them, they began to move off. I later learned that it was dad and his kids. The female emu lays the eggs and then pisses off to the pub to pick up another mat. The male incubates, hatches the eggs and raises the young. How’s that for a twist on gender roles? They're pretty funny to watch if they startle and take off at a full run. The shagginess of the plumage bouncing around is reminiscent of hysteria.
The kangaroo and emu are harmless. Kangaroos have no natural enemies (except dingoes and humans). They can leverage themselves on their tails and deliver some powerful kicks. Males fight among themselves for dominance and mating privilege. And the emu too has powerful legs and claws on its feet that can deliver a nasty kick. Their big, strong looking beaks can be at eye level. I've had geese come after me and peck at me. It hurts. I can only imagine what an emu beak can deliver. Either way, I didn’t want to ever find myself in a situation where one or the other felt threatened. I got to pet a few kangaroo and I was surprised at how soft the fur is. It’s also pretty thick which is surprising as it can get very hot. But I suppose that’s what helps keep it cool.
Australia has a reputation of being home to large numbers of dangerous wildlife as well. Big, bitey things with lots of teeth. The salt water crocodile for example. It is a ferocious set of teeth attached to a large reptilian body. They are everywhere there is water within its range. They swim in the ocean AND fresh water. One has to pay attention up there. There are sharks too. Big ones. And how many venomous snakes? Twenty-three of the world's 25 most venomous or something. Then there are the deadly jellyfish, blue ring octopus, rock fish. Not to mention the spiders. That’s the wildlife that creeps me out the most. There must be something in our primitive brain that makes us recoil from spiders. But they fascinate me at the same time.
I went to the Australian museum in Sydney to see a special exhibit on
Australia’s spiders. It was awesome! Money well spent. I saw live funnel web
spiders. They live underground (as much as a meter) for the most part. They
might be one of the oldest species of spider on the planet still quietly going
about its business. A Jurassic throwback. It hasn’t changed in four
million years. The Funnel web spider has a very nasty bite. So does the red
back, trap door and red headed spider. The white tail spider has been much
maligned as have all spiders. But here’s the thing about all this fauna. It’s
not just lurking around with malicious intent. It doesn't spend the day just
waiting its chance to pounce and ruin the day of whomever happens to be walking
by. They sting, bite or poison only when threatened or hungry. There are
precautions one can take. Not digging around with bare hands in the soil maybe.
Making lots of noise when traipsing through the bush. Staying out of dense
thickets altogether is sometimes prudent. It's also wise to obey warning signs
posted near water. I often saw signs announcing shark, dangerous stinger or
croc sightings. It’s not a good idea to reach out and pet spiders or snakes no
matter how cute and cuddly they look. I had my closest encounter with a very
pissed off tiger snake. A chance meeting I don't want to repeat. Most snakes
move away when they feel the vibration of human feet walking. Bicycles don't
seem to have the same effect. And for God’s sake if a blue ring octopus’s rings
are glowing blue, DON’T TOUCH IT!
Did I mention the ants? Australia supports 1300 or so species.
Some are tiny and inconsequential. Some are large with pincers and have a bad attitude if you step on them. I accidentally stepped into
a nest of bull ants while pushing my bike up a steep hill. OK, I was poaching a
walkers trail when I came to a section of high, stone steps. Yeah. In about 8
seconds they were in my shoes and moving up my legs. That’s the first time I
ever ran away from my bike screaming like a lunatic. I had to make three or
four short forays back to the bike, pull off a bag, throw it up the hill and
run. I finally got the weight of the bike down to where I could pick it up and claw my way
up the trail with it. Fortunately, I’m not allergic to bee stings. I was once
stung by a scorpion and it wasn’t too bad. Once the ants were off me, the bites
were not irritated. I got off lucky that time. That’s how we learn sometimes.
|"Actually, I was going to sleep there. But it's OK, you can have that bunk". Harmless huntsman.|
Did I mention the ants? Australia supports 1300 or so species.
|Termite (ant) mounds can have as many as a million members or more.|
Moral of the story: DO NOT poach hikers' trails!
I spent the majority of my nights in Australia camped in the bush under incredibly dark skies. Even though I work in the outdoor industry and camp for a living, I've never seen night skies like these. There is very little light pollution. Especially out in the bush away from cities. When it is dark, or there is no moon it’s really dark out there. It even spooked me a time or two. Having said that, I felt relatively safe alone in the bush. Sharing the road with drivers was far more dangerous. And it’s not the “road trains”. Although they can be quite terrifying. Those are the long haul tractors pulling three full length trailers. It is the Aussie tourists and their Toyota Land Crushers that are the real danger. They came hurtling past me at 120 and were far scarier. Bigger is not necessarily safer. Not for the cyclist to be sure. But slower sure is. The commentary and editorializing about said drivers at KFUK* radio was pretty funny. Or would have been if the consequences of a collision were not so dire.
*KFUK radio. The one that plays in one's head all day long.
Australia has had its share of bizarre and violent mass murders. And in every state, locals will point to the neighbouring state and tell you how weird “those” people are. I will state for the record that I did do some hitchhiking. I tried to be smart and strategic about it. Seemed to work out OK. In any case, while in Australia, I never thought too much about random gun violence. As I sit here writing these words I learn of yet another mass school shooting in the US. This time in the state of Florida. At least seventeen dead. Australians ask me why I’m not in a hurry to go back to the US. Duh…
I had been in Australia for a few months before I noticed a sense of relief. I wasn't sure why. Then I realized how stressful it can be living in a country where random gun violence has become the new normal. One cool thing about Oz, very few guns. Not none, I’m not that naive. In 1996 35 people died and 23 were injured in a mass shooting. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the government of Australia stepped in. The feds launched an assertive buy back and amnesty program. Almost 700,00 weapons were taken off the streets and destroyed by the government. There is a complete ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons except in the hands of the police. There is a twenty-eight-day waiting period to buy a gun. The government of Australia also passed more stringent licensing requirements. I’m not deluded enough to think I’m immune from crime. Violence is a problem in all societies. And aboriginal communities suffer more under a terrible yolk of widespread violence and crime. That fact is not lost on me. But my chances of being randomly shot to death by a lunatic with a gun in Australia are far less than in the US.
My point is that I never thought much about my personal safety other than the daily precautions. Hazards like traffic, environmental conditions or deadly wildlife seemed more manageable to me. As a woman travelling alone however, there is always a niggling in the back of my mind about safety. I have my own rules. I pay attention to my surroundings. I never reveal exactly where I am going to camp, camp well away from roads, stay out of sight. Only on one or two occasions (out of several hundred nights) did I become a little nervous or creeped out. Scientists have said that there is a primitive part of our brain that alerts us to unseen danger. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up for no apparent reason. It's an evolutionary adaptation from thousands of years ago. Back when we got chased around the steppes of Asia by saber toothed tigers. A primitive part of our brains could sense a stalker behind us. There is no saber toothed tigers here. Although, some folks believe in the existence of living thylacines. There were only one or two occasions when something felt off. I was spooked and I couldn’t understand why. I'm not so cavalier about it though. I paid attention to those signals and came up with a plan ‘B’. I was always prepared to move on when it didn't seem right, hide deeper in the bush. Sometimes I would find a spot and sit for an hour or more before setting up my camp. I’d hang out listening and watching. This was as much for absorbing the sights and sounds of the forest or bush as for safety. There are lots of signs of humans. Easy to see and understand if you know where to look and what to look for.
“Be Fearless, fearless…”
These are the words I began to hear in my mind. I'm weighing out the benefit/consequences of a certain route I was thinking about taking. “What if”? I'd gained some confidence here. I cycled 3500 kilometers mostly off road in south Western Australia. What could possibly go wrong?
I tend to err on the side of caution. Even when I was working as a guide. Sometimes times to a fault. The degree of Difficulty and competence of the individual can cause an outing to turn out one of two ways. Adventure or MIS adventure.
I can think of a million and one ways to die in the woods. Most of which I eliminate right off.
So, I went for it. Cycling back roads, gravel, sandy tracks and even some walking trails. A small mis- adventure one day but remedied quickly. Lesson: DO NOT poach hiking trails on a bicycle. At least not often. I was fortunate enough to experience some really cool moments with the forest.
What follows are reflections of one such place:
What follows are reflections of one such place:
Sitting at the base of a Giant Tingle tree. There several varieties; they are all eucalyptus. There exists on the planet one small 600-hectare area where these behemoths grow. Equal to about 2.3 square miles. This tiny range is due to very specific, environmental and ecological forces. It includes, geology, topography, aspect, climate and time. About 45 million years. It’s a perfect storm of forces. In fact, most of the south western corner is home to one of the widest ranges of bio-diversity IN. THE. World. And sadly is being lost at an alarming rate. I have a theory. Natural resource development and human encroachment are a big part but there is more. I blame sound bights. Our world and conscious reality today is based on thirty second intervals. If we don't get the point in half a minute, there is no purpose. It is in our relationship (or lack thereof) to the world from which we emerged. Nature. I camped right on a wide section of the Bibbulman Trail last night jus to be closer to these trees. Early the next morning, I packed up my tent and went to sit with the two big trees. I love absorbing the sound of the forest coming to life as day breaks. It’s a very special time. Maybe the veil between the two worlds is thin. It feels mystical to me. I love to just lie there and look up into the canopy. There is so much happening up there. Birds dart in an out of the branches, flying insects seem to dance and the breeze sets the leaves in motion. To me it sounds like music.
These giants are fragile with shallow roots. There is a boardwalk around the bases to keep folks from walking on the roots. Scientists learned from losing other trees how susceptible they are to impact. A few of them died and fell down after years of people driving and walking on the roots.
It was still early. But soon there would be lots of people, coming to see these trees and take obligatory selfies. I watched them stand in the blackened space where a fire had burned out the inside of the base. It’s like a cave. A small family could live in there. The tree is still alive and is mostly healthy. Most of the people that stood in the cavern never looked up. Several folks walked through and never even looked at the tree.
I spent hours there. Very few people looked up into the canopy. Nor did anyone stop and lay their bare hands upon the soft, fragrant bark. Feel the texture. It’s pretty soft. There is a sensuousness this gentle giant. As there is to all trees. If people looked closely, they’d see swirls and circles and odd organic shapes. I see the random design of evolution in a visual representation of millions of years or adaptation. I am amazed. I love this stuff!
Did I need to travel 14,000 miles to have this experience? Probably not. This isn’t news to me. But it’s interesting to see how other cultures experience the world they live in.
|Banksia seed pods need fire to open and disperse seeds.|
I hope my words encourage you. I invite you to step into the extraordinary. Travel on your own. Make wrong turns, follow dirt roads that disappear into bush land. Walk through deep sand on quiet tracks. Listen for birds and the breeze. Talk to strangers. Above all, look for common ground, in the everyday experiences of people and life everywhere.
Thanks for reading…
I could write an entire book just on traveling in Australia. One day I will.
I don’t get to do what I do without the help and support of the amazing people I meet.
Special thanks to: Lesley Hart and William Tremel, Jim and Julie Burgett, The Casement/Duncan family, Bridget Liddell, Anne, Terry, Parry, John and Colin of Parry Creek Farm; John and Alison Stanley, Sam, my family and all the incredible people out there that helped make this dream a reality.