Monday, 30 July 2012

In the forest, by the beach

I spent a week at Boranup after leaving my Freo home. Half an hour south of Margaret River on the WA south coast, it’s got forest and it’s got waves. A good combination.

I had left my job and filled my car with everything I wanted to take with me. A no-deadline drive to the other side of the country.

No longer any need to worry about what time the shops close, what time the bus goes, how long until work finishes. Now my cares were for the direction of the wind, the size of the swell, how many pages I could read before dozing off in the afternoon warmth. I focussed on the simple things like identifying which bird call comes from which bird, and studying the trail a snake leaves in the dirt as it glides across the road.
I spent time observing the moods of the Karri forest... The crisp mornings when the bright sunbeams first broke through the trees, all expectant and ready for what the day would bring. I gulped down some weetbix and gathered my things for a morning at the beach...The lazy afternoons when the birds called languidly, the soft breeze swaying the treetops and the shade called me invitingly to sleep...the frantic afternoons of wild wind when the trees shook violently with a creaking and a crashing. Leaves fell and danced on the forest floor, full of action and motion...the evenings when the moon rose glistening off the silver treetops...the morning I woke to the sound of fat raindrops slowly dripping onto the tent. A mist hovered in the trees and crows called to one another from within like sad fog signals of steaming ships. I lay in my sleeping bag and wriggled my toes in contentment.
There’s a four wheel drive track to the beach, but the massive ruts at the start would have devoured my car, so with board under arm I got used to the forty minute walk up over the hill and out of the karris, through coastal heath where wagtails, honey eaters and tiny wrens flitted around in the trees beside me, down the rocky slope towards the sea and then finally I tumbled down the dune with sand cascading around me.  
Some days the beach was deserted. The sand was rippled by wind and untrodden by human foot, the surface marked only by the three-toed imprints of oyster catchers and seagulls. The shifting dunes continued for miles in either direction. Wind whipped up ribbons of sand that whirled and twisted around my ankles before continuing down the beach like the ghosts of swift flowing streams long dead.
On weekends when the waves were good and the sun shone, the beach was transformed. Two dozen four wheel drives parked on the sand facing the waves, and maybe a hundred surfers were dotted along the several peaks, there was someone filming from the shore, a line of five multicoloured surfboards were stuck nose-first in the sand beside him and a shaggy brown dog was pacing the water’s edge gazing into the surf waiting for its owner to come in and scratch behind his ears with a wet hand.
On days like this I’d usually get a lift back to the campsite in the back of someone’s four wheel drive. I made salad wraps for lunch then I’d drag the tarp into the shade, put my sleeping mat on top and doze the afternoon away as cars sped by on the way to the beach, dust kicking up behind them.
This dreamy hobo life was working out well.
Late in the afternoon I walked back to the beach, the best time to be in the water. The sun dropped towards the horizon over the ocean. Moments before it set the world became suffused in pinkish violet light, the wind died off, the waves broke in a hushed whisper, there was a salty mist in the air and everything moved in slow motion.
I started the walk back up the track with a warm orange glow on the horizon and the last four wheel drive bouncing along the beach, its headlights like a beacon before it. The sound of the surf faded and I listened instead to grasshoppers’ syncopated chirrups from the bushes beside me, my heavy breathing as I made it up the hill, and my legrope jangling against the board under my arm.
But the simple life wasn’t without its problems.  I became locked in battle with a bandit local. I was frying up some sausages one night, when there was a whooshing sound and a great bundle of feathers swooped down, grabbed half a sausage and flew over to sit on a log and beat the sausage senseless. The kookaburra looked at me then flew up to a branch above to eat the now dead sausage.
Well I’ll be, I thought. I kept one eye on my food and the other over my shoulder watching the bandit while I finished cooking. As I sat down to eat, the burra flew down right towards my plate. I stood up and waved my arms menacingly and yelled AAAARBEGRANAMANA and that was enough to divert him off course. But a few minutes later he swooped again and the same actions from me had no effect. I could see by the glint in his eyes he wasn’t scared of me or my gibberish. His beak was sharp, his claws were pointy, so I stepped out of the way and watched him take another half sausage.
That was the end of him for that night. But the next day I was making lunch, putting some salad on a sandwich and was just scooping some tuna on top when a familiar whooshing sound heralded the arrival of my nemesis. He sat himself on the other side of the table, my plate of food between us. This time I would not be so easily bullied, so with the fork I was holding I gave him a small jab to the chest and said ‘be gone, scoundrel.’ He didn’t budge, but just leaned in to steal some tuna, so with my fork I deflected his beak, but undeterred he went in again and I parried again. It became a duel, a battle for honour and canned fish. He thrust, I blocked. He feinted left, I jabbed swiftly. The campground rang to the sound of metal against whatever it is beaks are made of. Around we went, jumping logs, standing on the table, advancing, retreating. Neither would relent, but would fight to the bitter end.
In the end my foe was the greater warrior and he made off with a gobful of tuna to eat in the tree above.
 I could hardly begrudge him that, my life in the forest was a pretty good one.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Nullarbor Dreaming, Part Two

Eastward, 2012

 ‘Good day for a drive eh? Not too hot, and you’ve got a tail wind.’

The guy who checked me out of the backpackers at Esperance was the last person I talked to before setting off over the Nullarbor. My second crossing – four years after driving west I was returning to my east coast homeland. Again the car was full of everything I had, again I was moving to a new beginning. Though this time it was to a familiar territory. And this time the car stereo was working.

As I pulled out of the car park that old melancholy seasickness settled in – a familiar feeling that comes to me during times of upheaval. I made it worse for myself by putting David Gray on the stereo, and the ache of his voice singing ‘through the wind and the rain my darling, say goodbye’ and the grey sky and drops of rain on the windscreen combined with the thoughts in my head about places I was leaving behind and a love that never happened and the vague uncertainty of life, to make it a wistful journey north towards Norseman.

I filled up with fuel, ate an apple and then turning eastwards the countryside changed. The steel grey road glistened in the wet and off to the side there were eucalypts of glowing white, dark brown and rusty orange. The moist leaves shimmered in subtle shades of green, and there was bare red earth, dark grey clouds and patches of blue sky.

I was in no hurry and stopped for stretches, for snacks, to admire the view. The road was quiet – a couple of road trains but mostly campervans or four wheel drives towing caravans. People crossing the country, people on the move.

I drove the ninety mile straight listening to Midnight Oil, ‘yellow belly black snake sleeping on a red rock waiting for the stranger to go’, it’s suited to this country. At the end of the straight I pulled down a dirt track and found a spot to set up camp. There was enough wood for a fire so I got a little one going then began my maiden attempt at making damper. It was messy and there was flour everywhere and dough stuck all over my hands, but after giving it a spell in the coals I brought out a toasty, one person sized loaf of warm crusty goodness. I sipped my tea, leaned back to take in the stars and felt alright.


A dark cloudy morning, somewhere on the Nullarbor. Wind gusted light rain onto the windscreen. Five or six crows stood over the slain figure of a lone roo in the middle of the road. They looked like sinister men in dark suits, not uninvolved in the death of this unfortunate individual. Some sort of gangland hit. One pecked at its exposed guts while the others stood guard. ‘Aaaarg’ said one of the henchmen. As I drove closer they reluctantly flapped over to the roadside. ‘Oooorg’ said another. I had a suspicion I had just witnessed a murder of crows. 


I watched the gradual changes in landscape and vegetation. So many trees, more than I remembered seeing last time. At Madura Pass there’s a slight rise and as the road drops there are sweeping views to the south over a flat plain dotted with low acacias. A scarp ran to the east and the road followed the bottom of this into the distance. There was a lookout and a barefoot guy had hopped out of his van to sit on a rock and strum his guitar; another couple in a big campervan took some photos then drove away. There was a cool breeze, and I sat for a while then drove off too.

Thick clouds roamed the skies dumping brief rain showers as they passed. Puddles formed in depressions in the road, luring thirsty kangaroos into dangerous territory. An emu took tentative steps onto the road in front of me before wisely deciding to give it a miss for now.  

Entering South Australia the ocean became visible off to the right. There were tracks leading to the cliffs, vertical and powerful and I gazed over the Great Australian Bight. Less trees, more low scrub here. The afternoon wore on, I wasn’t sure of the time exactly because there had been one or maybe two time zone changes. But it was late enough to stop. I pulled onto another track to find a corner to pitch the tent and light a fire. Did I talk to anybody today? A few words to the crusty fella at the Eucla servo, that’s all.

Next morning, the third day, I drove on. My mind was everywhere. I tried to be present in the moment, to appreciate the place and time because I know it’s special to be doing this trip. But I was flicking to the past and the future. Thinking of how the metaphorical journey of life is occasionally a literal journey as well. For a lot of people on this road, and for me, we’re on a journey to somewhere. I’m beginning a new part of my life, done with Western Australia, I’m driving somewhere new.

I gently brought my attention to the feel of the sunshine streaming through the windscreen and warming my chest, these waves of energy that have flown through space from the fire in the sky just to crash into my navy blue tshirt, bringing a hum and a zing to my skin; I noticed the smell of the wood smoke in my hair and clothes from last night’s fire; I felt the vibrations of the tyres on the tarmac coming up to me through the chassis and the seat where I was perched only centimetres above the road I was hurtling past; I heard the sound of Paul Simon on the stereo singing ‘and I could say ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh and everybody would know what I was talking about’ , and for a moment there, just for a flash, I think I did know what he was talking about and I felt that truly this moment, this minute of this life is something to treasure.  

There was a sign stuck to a tree with the painted message asking WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY? Someone else had banged in a handwritten sign below this replying 6 FEET DOWN WITH YOU.   

Further along there was a sign proclaiming JESUS DIED FOR ALL, but it was barely legible, thoroughly pocked as it was with what I assumed were bullet holes.  

The Nullarbor... the place draws the lurking demons to the surface. I guess I outran mine this time. I made it unscathed to Cactus Bay where I stayed quite still for a few days, giving them a fair chance to catch up.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Nullarbor Dreaming, Part One

Westward, 2008.

Day 8: It's been many days since my last shower, I don't remember the last time I ate apple pie with ice cream, and I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever hear Livin on a Prayer by Bon Jovi again. The hours and kilometres are all blurring together and the space-time continuum has become a gooey highway, the consistency of mashed potato. I fear that I'm losing my mind entirely. Will I ever again see civilisation, will I ever gaze longingly into my dear Esmay's eyes, and will my dream of becoming the first man to run a certain distance in a certain time ever be realised?

Turning the corner out of Port Augusta, suddenly there it was. The red earth, low scrub and shimmering road way off into the distance. Central Australia. It was exciting for thirty seconds and then the cabin fever set in. I was hearing voices - it was Sam Symmons on Triple J, and he was fading out fast. No radio, and the smug cd player was refusing to accept any of my offerings so I was left alone to take on the Nullarbor in a mute silent vacuum.

Soon I heard something...dada dada dada (Jaws music), I was being circled by something; something grey and dangerous. It was...The Grey Nomads. They were in pursuit of me, coming from all directions, racing to see Australia before they die. They hunted in pairs, first it was Rhonda and Bob, then Bill and Wendy, the sticker on the tail of their caravan like a killer’s calling card. The Grey Nomads like to wave as they pass in the other direction, perhaps mistaking me for one of them. Needing some entertainment, I thought I'd engage them in a game of one-upmanship. If they gave me a lazy one finger off the wheel wave, I gave them two fingers. If they gave me a whole hand wave, I waved both hands. If they waved two hands, I stuck my whole arm out the window to wave.  

This arms race escalated until eventually I had both hands, both feet and my head out the window every time a campervan came near, just to outdo the old guy coming the other way.

I was miserably contemplating why this game, like all good things in life, seemed destined to end with body parts splattered all over the road, as I pulled into a service station, when who should come out to fill up my tank but The Oracle!

"You're not The One, Neo" she said.

"You mean I can dodge Grey Nomads?" I replied.

"No, but here's a cookie." 

As I drove out, I understood. I had to think outside the box. I could never outmuscle the Nomads, they were too many. I had to play by my own rules. I bamboozled them with new waves - The Ridgey Didge, The Twinings and The Cockatoo (make a circle with thumb and forefinger, leaving the other fingers splayed above. Accompany this with a shriek like a cockatoo. The Nomads can't hear this, but if you wind down the window and scream as they pass, they will get the picture.)  

The trip continued this way with little distraction.

I drove the longest straight stretch of road in Australia (ninety miles, or one hundred and forty six point six kilometres.) Not a bend. Can you imagine driving over an hour while sitting still behind the wheel, not turning once? I came up with the ingenious idea of tying a piece of string around the accelerator and the steering wheel, and crawling into the back for a nap for an hour and nineteen minutes. My plan was thwarted by the fact that I had no string, and both my shoelaces were already being used for other purposes (one was tying my beard - which was growing down to my knees - into a funky plait, and the other was tied around my waist for good luck).

I watched massive wedge tailed eagles cruising the skies, or munching on dead roos on the roadside. 

And then I was set upon by pirates. Desert pirates. These pirates weren't sailing their vessel over the seven seas, bearing the Jolly Roger aloft, but were instead sailing a roadblock through the sand, bearing a red stop sign aloft. They weren't bedecked in eye-patches and wooden legs, but instead wore orange vests with QUARANTINE written on the back. They didn't demand pieces of eight or treasure maps under pain of death, but wanted fruit, vegetables, honey or used earth moving equipment.

As they boarded my vehicle, I cast a longing look at my cache of crunchy apples, juicy mandarins, and also-crunchy carrots, my healthy alternative to skog.

"Please sir, spare me one mandarin" I implored the man, "I live in constant fear of scurvy."

"We all do mate”, he said, “but rules are rules. Now give me that honey."

"Did you say give me that honey, or give me that, honey?" I asked, for clarification purposes.

"Arrgh, just give me the loot, sugar," he said, lunging for the plunder.

But I stepped aside, declaring "You'll never take me alive, Fresh Produce Pirate!" and I gave a loud whistle, a signal for the eagles to come and whisk me and the produce away to safety. The eagles, however, let me down. They may have been rescuing Frodo and Sam from Mount Doom, or maybe they were busy carcass-crunching up the road.

As the pirate grabbed me, I knew there was only one course of action left open.

"You can take our lives but you'll never take our produce!" I screamed and began eating all the fresh food I had left. During this fruit and veg frenzy, I made a shocking discovery. Apples, mandarins and carrots, when mixed with honey, create a taste sensation unlike any I know. It was fresh, original, and had that special zing I've spent my life searching for. If only I could escape back to my lab, I could genetically engineer the perfect fruit. I knew, from past experience though, that getting the little buggers to breed in captivity is the hardest part.

It's not surprising that these villains deal in such commodities. Out in the desert treasure maps and pieces of eight are a dime a dozen, but fresh fruit is rare as a fat Kenyan. They don't even sell whole apples, but just little shards that you have to take to a special dealer for verification. He sits in his office with his little eye piece in and studies bits of goo - he might say "yep, that’s pure Granny Smith" if you're lucky, or "no mate, that's just a piece of snot," if you're not.

Day 9- Esperance: I apologise for yesterday. Please don’t think less of me. I'm now on the coast, in the land of milk and honey (literally). White sanded beaches, shops, fresh food. I don’t know if the crazed look in my eye gives away the peril I’ve survived. There are still about a thousand kilometres to go, and I’m hopeful that by the time I get to Perth I may have regained enough composure to become a fitting member of society after all.