I follow parallel scars, lured by their bumpy wayward promise. Leaving the dry red sand, I skirt marshy grasslands, trying to keep the lake in view, sometimes only imagined through tangled trees. I am seeking the illusory “far end” but dare not invade virgin ground—Is there any here, in cattle country? Are you mad?
I spy two colourful kingfishers, and stop the car. No. My mistake. They are rainbow bee-eaters. Leaving the car under a tree, I walk to a shady promontory of clean white sand. White sand! Not red. A beautiful place to watch and listen to the planet—alone in nature. [A solitude that requires a studious disregard of other passing 4WDs—adventurers on their own quest for escape and connection.]
I note, with annoyance, the detritus of previous visitors. Removing the offending items, I muse on my conceit… that I am better than those who leave their beer cans strewn in undergrowth. That I know how to bury my toilet paper. That I don’t kill trees for firewood. Why do I place myself apart from the rest of my kind? Perhaps… to avoid the uncomfortable truth of my own impact on a burdened ecosystem. [Note my squeamish avoidance of that uncomfortable word “negative” in the last sentence]
In a hollow scooped from beautiful white sand, I make a small cooking fire with dead leaves and fallen branches. While preparing my evening meal, large, bumpy cane toads emerge at dusk, hopping though my campsite. Here? In central Australia? Horrified, I rush to my swag to make sure no toad could possibly get inside—would they even want to?—then rig a mozzie net for protection from poisonous feral invaders and flying biters.
evening gloom descends
stars wink into existence
cane toads disappear
slightly concave moon
phasing owls a tone apart
what bird splashes now?
I wake with first light, and lie on my side watching drifts of pelicans, darters and little black cormorants, quietly paddling the long lake. So peaceful. All heading in the same direction. ?!@!? Is there a current? Is this a river… or a lake? I sit up.
Yesterday I noted with disappointment that the water here is thoroughly opaque — a saturated solution of fine white clay. I guess it’s clay… Not tempting for this saltwater-girl to swim in!
The chatter of small birds fills my world. Near me, a willie wagtail performs black and white acrobatics on the sand, twisting and doubling back to catch invisible insects. I find myself grinning at his antics.
Crawling from my swag, my equanimity is interrupted by noisy engines. I stand, and glimpse two large-wheeled bike-like buggies speeding behind trees on the far side. Who are they? And how did they get over there? Isn’t that an island?
Later, after burying my breakfast-fire back into the sand, I witness a most remarkable choreography. Out in the middle of the waterway, pelicans congregate in a long flotilla surrounded by a squadron of cormorants. As more and more latecomers glide in to join the growing throng, the lead pelicans tip forward, plunging their heads into the water, tail feathers up, and a Mexican wave ripples back through the flock. The last birds are bum up as the front mob lift their long necks and floppy beaks to the sky. A fish-herding technique? They don’t seem to be successful… no one is eating.
Slowly advancing along the waterway, their impressive rippling wave continues flawlessly. Mesmeric. Like a staggered line of those pivoting toy birds we had as kids that would tip over, dip their beak in a glass of water and come back upright, only to tip over for another drink…
Closer to shore, I observe a few heretic birds gulping fish. But, of those in the massive avian ballet, not one interrupts the dance to catch a meal. Perhaps this perfectly phased synchronised ritual has a symbolic social significance…?
On the far bank, a small group of black-winged stilts also observe the strangely graceful ceremony. On my side, tiny wrens and other insect-eaters focus their attention elsewhere. They dart from the protection of low branches, out to the lake’s surface and back, often vying with one another for the same minute quarry. These small birds don’t stay in the open for long, as raptors are patrolling overhead, their eerie cries a constant warning.
Meanwhile, the strange beak-down, bum-up Rite of Passage continues. Perhaps they are hypnotising the fish? Lulling them. Or… is it a form of Grace? … a prayer for prey.
Eventually the dance comes to an end and the pelicans disperse, appearing to drift aimlessly. One near me suddenly plunges its baggy bill beneath the clayey water’s surface. A catch! Tossing its bulging bill-pouch skywards, with the aid of gravity it swallows the writhing catch.
An Australasian darter also emerges with a large flapping fish impaled on its long pointed beak—silver tail madly fighting to escape. I am certain the fish will win its freedom. Sure enough, with a sudden snap of the darter’s head, the fish disappears from sight—but not below the water. It now squirms within a painfully misshapen neck. My own throat involuntarily aches.
Ducking its head, the darter gulps. After many such intakes of water and a final aggressive head-shake, its long snake-like neck is once more slender, and tummy full. It noisily flaps its black wings, managing to lift its now heavy-self just clear of streaming waters, as another darter calls out its strange decaying Fibonacci croaks. Quar quar qua qua-qua qua quaqua quaqua.
I grab my notepad and sit by the long lake, scribbling observations and sketching ideas for later verse.
A shag sits on a branch of dead wood
wings hung out to dry;
sharp, black angles gleam and drip
beneath the morning sky;
serpentine neck all twisted round
to reach its shaggy back
for yellow spear-like beak to primp
and preen its feathers black
A beautiful rainbow bee-eater flits from a branch overhead to swoop and catch its lunch above the lake’s surface; then makes a hasty retreat, spreading its amazing triangular wings, to settle on a perch just above me. This is my first chance to observe a bee-eater at close quarters. The designer of this bird had outrageous fun!
black beak, masked eyes, green brow, on a yellow-orange head;
translucent orange sails, when black-tipped wings are spread;
aqua cheeks; pale green chest; green shoulders, turquoise back;
protruding from its tail feathers, a central ribbon, black.
rainbow bee-eater snaps a wasp, scissored in curved bill
soundly thumping branch as the insect struggles still!
Seven times it hits that bug, removing sting, before
it gulps it down, then flits and swoops across the lake for more
—wild, extreme, erratic flight—
tossed on a gusting breeze
across the lake and out of sight
a monarch butterfly flees
great egret, with head retracted, S-bend neck,
wings —pristine white— spread wide
lands on marshy shore, extends its neck, and
elegantly struts by water’s side
slow wing beats
a lazy, red, long-legged lope
with long black dagger beak
the blue-black black-necked stork
jabs weedy mud in hope
a jabbing jabiru… jaba who? jabber you!
I shove my notebook into my daypack. The day has become very hot. Gazing at the lake, I muse that the clayey water must be clean to support so many fish to feed this insane amount of birds… No?
And it is clean! It feels great! I swim all the way to the other side, emerging to wade between fleshy green snails feeding in the weedy shallows. A rusted iron frame lies beside the lake. What was it for? A fish trap? Next to it is a plastic milk-crate containing a neatly folded tarp, and in front of this, at waters edge, a small diesel pump. I follow the hose back to a tree rigged with a shower rose. Discarded empty “bodywash” and “shampoo-for-men” bottles lie amidst the fallen leaves. An abandoned campsite.
I wander up the bank and see the roofs of three parked vehicles beyond the gums. My pulse quickens as my aversion for my own kind kicks in. I don’t dare go further. Are they wrecks or still in use? Ah! Tents. Perhaps this is the buggy-drivers camp? Are they seasonal workers for the local farmer? Nice place to stay. I quietly retreat. Embarrassed at accidentally invading another’s privacy, I wade back into the waterway and swim for home.
I am delayed midway by the excitement of being amongst pelicans and cormorants – pied and black. I count the whistling-kites wheeling overhead. Eighteen! A darter, with its body submerged from sight, looks uncannily like a swimming snake. His head and kinky neck slip beneath the surface, reappearing a long time later, many metres away. As I tread water, fish leap nervously about me. Heaven!
A lone Caspian tern flies overhead, flapping dark tipped wings, quickly adjusting direction. A sea bird? Here? Its black capped head is titled forward—orange beak aimed dagger-downwards like its searching gaze. Surely one good tern deserves another… I follow its lead back towards my campsite.
The pale blue sky is painted with purple-grey striated lines of lingering clouds. Tossing my towel over a wide-girthed branch, I find a snake skeleton in the fork of the tree—a broad white skull and partially coiled spine. I gingerly pick it up—a death adder perhaps? A pied butcher bird begins its joyous morning aria in a tree above me. Thirty minutes of glorious variations. What a musician! Hard to beat a butcher bird for a good melody.
After a simple lunch by the lake, I spot what appears to be a pair of kangaroos further to the left on the opposite bank. It’s hot, so I soon return to the water and quietly make my way across, politely passing placid pelicans. I swim a gentle breaststroke careful not to break the water with my hands. I don’t want those grazing roos to see me coming.
Keeping my shoulders below the surface, I sneak to within a few metres of the grassy bank, not far from the roos—a joey is with them. Lying stationary in the opaque water, I rest my elbows on the muddy bottom, my eyes just above the lake’s meniscus. The large male notices me but can’t seem to work out what I am. He stands tall, takes a second look, squints in disbelief, then bows and grazes the scraggly grass as if I were a hallucination. He knows I live, as we locked eyes for quite a while… but without a body, I guess I make no sense. I’m certainly not a regular pelican!
He’s not big enough to be a red kangaroo. Not sure what they are. Wallaroos? The female is totally oblivious of my presence, but perhaps it’s a practiced oblivion—the same cold-shoulder she gives the male, whose engorged and strangely mobile penis and amorous advances are soundly ignored. But the joey soon spots my keenly watching eyes and leaps in fright. He alerts his mother.
“What’s that?!” Baby Roo asks Kanga, nervously. She sees me and springs away in fright. From a safe distance, Kanga checks me out. She, too, eventually relaxes, but Baby Roo keeps a constant watch, not trusting for a second this pair of floating eyes with brown mop.
After a while, I inch forward exposing my shoulders, then stop. The joey sounds the alarm, loudly thumping the ground, and attempts to dive headfirst into his mother’s pouch. He then leads both adults up the embankment and into the shelter of the trees to peer at me from a leafy hide. The game is up, so I fully emerge and they bound off.
I too run for cover, as the fat-tyred buggies of the returning farmhands rev just beyond the treed lip of the embankment. I’m soon underwater pulling hard for my side of the lake, eyes tightly shut against the white clayey slush. Fully immersed in a suspension of disbelief… I surface to giggle at my silly thoughts, swallowing a mouthful of clayey water. A nearby pelican grunts, and I splutter aloud, ‘my sediments exactly.’
Throughout the afternoon, the wind picks up. Wild gusts send winged shadows flying across the milky waters, now a rippled pale expanse looking like a fossilised seabed. The trees on my sandy isthmus creak and groan, as their branches whip about; leaves screaming. My mozzie net is threatening to take off at waters edge, but I can’t leave the fire unattended. I scoop armfuls of sand to build up the walls around my bubbling dinner. The wind is blowing from the Southeast like a giant’s bellows pumping my campfire. Flames suddenly roar in the sandy pit, its brightly glowing coals flaring. It would be so easy for a spark to ignite the dry grasses and scrub just downwind of me. A terrifying thought. I quickly remove the largest flaming branch and bury it in sand.
The wind dies for a moment. My billy now sits on grey ash and sand, heat still radiating from buried coals, but I dare not rekindle the fire’s flame. The morning was so calm and peaceful with just a warm and gentle breeze, then built imperceptibly to this gale force that now threatens to topple trees.
A bird I don’t know calls from the woods, answered by a different cry – an urgent repetition. And there is another strange sound — like a tent zip opening and closing, coming from behind the eucalypt beside me. An uncanny sound that is heard between wild gusts. The ghost of the axe wielder who scarred these trees about my camp? A cruel and angry man who cut deep gashes in living flesh? Or just a careless child with tomahawk, practicing her swing, chopping limbs from living trees, just to prove she could?
I’m woken by a crow cawing four, then five, then five, then three times. Oh to speak crow. I eagerly escape the claustrophobia of my hastily-erected tent. I hate being separated from the sky!
Everything is so serene and still after last night’s stormy hot winds and scattered rain. Fish leap from the water right beside passing pelicans. The large birds don’t react at all. Are they paddling in their sleep? Perhaps the designated hour for eating fish has not yet arrived. Maybe they don’t eat until after their bizarre choreography of dipping-beaks and raised tail feathers—a ritual to honour the balance in all things. Perhaps they are giving the fish a fighting chance via a “declaration of intent” through interpretive dance. Or… maybe their tummies are still full from yesterday…
I recall a limerick my grandmother used to recite:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!
Grandma had a store of limericks she’d produce at appropriate moments. I’ve since discovered this one was written in 1910 by Dixon Lanier Merritt, an American poet. Hearing it in Grandma’s voice, I’d thought it as an Aussie rhyme… Grandma would have been 5 years old when it was published. I wonder if she heard it that same year…
A kite calls out its high-pitched falling whistle and rapidly ascending staccato notes as I coyly watch the distant spectacle of a naked man showering. After their noisy buggies have departed, I leave my shady camp to wander the bank, notebook in hand.
A large mottled fawn-brown whistling-kite circles, his black flight feathers all fanned out. He then swoops at great speed, catching a fish in his talons, upsetting two zombie pelicans from their measured path.
dives from height
catching fish before a pelly can
behold the angry pouch-billed bird
“You can’t do that!” she grunts
“absurd!” But… welican!
upside-down, in tranquil shallows, three great egrets elegantly wade
one takes off, but is soon replaced by a fourth, as if the third had stayed
and thus the picture-perfect triptych of ghostly-white is not unmade
A distant crow calls eight times then ends with two quavers a tone higher. What does it mean? Across the way, white limbs glow in morning sunlight, protruding from green leafy boughs. Two russet roos sit side by side in the shade of the sprawling gum, one large, one small—characters from A.A.Milne’s hundred-acre-wood. Yesterday’s family, I presume.
I lower myself to the sandy bank and toss a stick into the water. Looking for another, I find droppings next to me that look suspiciously like Eeyore poo. I wonder if he’ll come floating past pooh corner! A few days ago I saw seven feral donkeys with handsome cross-shaped markings on their shoulders, wandering through termite country. So it’s possible…
long-legged ibis wanders water’s weedy edge
its slender sickle beak probing matted mud
Amidst so many different squawks and tweets of unnamed birds, a beautiful voice, as clear as a bell, rings through. A crested bellbird, perhaps? I can’t see it. Behind me in the woods, there’s a backdrop of buzzing flies—another distinct layer in this magic multi-tracked morning music. I don’t want to leave.
I muse on the clans that must have gathered here for who knows how many tens-of-thousands of years before the big cattle ranchers moved in. Do the traditional custodians still come here for fishing and ceremony? What is their relationship with the current “owner”? It is such a wonderful place to commune with the creatures and spirits of the land… There must be many stories of the ancestors and songs of creator beings based here.
Collecting my own and others’ rubbish, burying the ugly black scar of fire, raking the now greyed sand with fingers and toes, I ponder the urban human’s craving for time out in nature. The paradox of loving a “pristine” environment, yet altering it by the very act of visiting. I like to think that, once upon a time, homo sapiens were in a better balance with those who fly or hop. Now, the extent of damage is so vast that a visit to a small patch of remnant vegetation means my car further compacts the soil for sensitive root systems and fungal lines of communication, and my love of fire removes ground litter habitat for small mammals, reptiles and birds… gone.
Once a region like this becomes popular, it’s strewn with rubbish. Then come toilet blocks, proper roads, gas barbecues, picnic tables, defined car parks and official signs about removing our rubbish… and it just isn’t the same any more.
But you know all this…
I won’t tell you exactly where this is—because I don’t want to hasten its demise. In reality, it won’t be long before every camping app and social media site lists it as a must see, with photos splashed across the internet. For, despite lack of signage, this waterway already has many campers visiting it, fishing, burning fallen branches, photographing birds and leaving their idle hatchet marks in the trunks of old gums.
“But, Eeyore,” said Pooh in distress, “what can we – I mean, how shall we – do you think if we —”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “One of those would be just the thing. Thank you, Pooh.”
(The House at Pooh Corner by A.A.Milne, 1928)