Everybody Can Get In On This Act...

If you live rurally, even semi-rurally, this may not seem too big a deal, though it’s likely to hit home if you reverse the roles.

In the previous piece, the concluding section touched on nature and advocated getting out into it; to get yourself a good 'hit of tree'. I’ve not yet taken my own advice in ’24 since I did get a good hit of nature late in ’23, in a trip down memory lane to visit my all-time favourite trees in The Blue Mountains west of Sydney, a magical locale we’ll circle back to another time. In the meantime, nature and the jewels within, via a touch of circuitousness.

Recently brought forward was the recollection of another trip, by mini-bus to central Queensland, with backpackers from Canada, Germany, the UK, and US. Included were a couple of we locals and an ever-beaming driver who doubled as guide. Following hurried introductions, we departed Brisbane from a light industrial suburban rendezvous point and made our way up onto the Great Dividing Range, through the garden city of Toowoomba, and pointed our baby bus to the trip’s first overnight, at Roma, where a cauldron of vegetable soup for fourteen was prepared by yours truly. Being it was in ancient times: 1984, our eager young group used paper maps to interrogate the territory along the route, the foreign travellers delightedly curious about place names and local customs. The following day it was up the road to Injune, where a black Akubra hat was purchased from a modest outfitter’s emporium on the main road. A vivid memory and its accompanying feeling is of the store’s unpretentious window display facing the morning sun. It handsomely merchandised checked shirts, moleskins, boots, belts and head gear; workwear essentials seeming to make it plain that out there it was all about getting a job done. For us, being tourists, getting the job done was about coming to know the places and people before us, any so-called work involving little more than to pitch a tiny tent then hunt for firewood.

The author in Central Queensland near Carnarvon Gorge in 1984, wearing the Akubra hat and standing next to a large tree

The second night involved camping on a large rural property. In the style of a Māori Hāngī, a hole had been dug, a fire lit nearby in order its embers heat chunks of steel (not strictly Māori tradition) to be dropped, once glowing hot, into the hole, the food placed upon it, wet blankets laid down over it, and the dirt shovelled back on. Thus buried to cook slowly, later to be disinterred and eaten. We were invited to watch the beginning of preparation for this evening meal. Most of us took up the offer. We assembled within a fenced area next to a small shed. I condense the particulars of this next part of the process to say only that it was over-with quickly, and that the pragmatic nature of people on the land—also being deft with all manner of keen-edged utensils—includes that they have a subtle directness about necessities for eating and living out there. Their composure is cool, pride veiled by their nonchalance. Nine hours later, when we patiently lined up to serve ourselves from the Bain-marie, also tender were our thoughts of the shared experience, that first full day of our adventure.

Before the off-road bit, which will lead not only to a near fatal moment in the morning twilight, but also to one of life’s sweetest experiences, we must first go via the front door. The painting of a suburban front door.

It’s been a project the last couple of weeks. The going is slow. There are several colours, there’s drying time and the requirement to mask sections with blue painter’s tape in order to achieve immaculate lines—yes, yes, touch-up misdemeanours as well—negotiate the finicky want to deliver a better than B+ result, and include three coats of a gloss polyurethane because, you know: front doors, first impressions.

The front door in the process of being painted. On a rich brown background, four rich colours (Water Raceway Blue, Tangy Orange, Golden Margeurite - the tang of a ripe mango, and Golden Passionfruit - the zesty green of a tree frog) which start from the top of the door and come together at the level of the handle in a fantastic elongated triangle, and wrap around the edge of the door to terminate at a single point.

Nearby, an arterial road carries traffic, which is moderate-to-heavy every day of the week so the front door, once re-hung, will, more often than not, be kept shut because there really is such a thing as remote-sensing road rage, or, if one is flat-out trying for the quiet-time of lounging, there is the reclining kind of road rage: the grrrrr! at the brrrrooom brrrroooms! In such a case, the door would be closed, its fresh polychromatic welcome out of sight, facing instead the passing parade. This thought then has me wondering: I’m slapping on paint for passersby?!

The painting of the front door is part of a more expansive desire. It’s to evoke the building’s 70s architectural style, to match featured interior hues, and to break a little from the banal in much of utilitarian modernity. One can examine individual elements of this stuff heaped on the nature strips of suburbs everywhere, the new garbage, of a near-new, but suddenly useless, let’s say: bedside table and drawer and bookshelf made of cardboard, paper and something resembling a woody-ish texture that bloats and buckles under a damp tea towel; the crushed lantern light shade, and once seductive knick-knack, now ripped, or split, hurled to the kerb; a dust-stuffed vacuum cleaner Dalek, leaning and pointing a proboscis at a vacated CD rack; the carbon fused toaster, right by the big black flat-screen, glad to be out of its hysterical flickering misery. Such pretty sights we have between our driveways. Which brings us back to the sound of impatient traffic…and to the endearing wild, whispering for us to get out, get out, get out, now!

You may have guessed that that short ‘side-trip’ of the previous five paragraphs was for the purpose of offering a contrast. The bitumen drive-by of that awful blight of junk we’re perpetually within sight of, now again happily gives way to the open road that will bring us to prehistoric Carnarvon Gorge. As mentioned a little earlier, it is forty years since my one trip (so far) to that place, modestly experienced over two short days. And yet, it is always fondly within sight.

The mini-van lurched and a turn was taken, the trailer behind bucked like a steer, attached to our tugging hitch. An announcement was made by the driver. Not through any kind of speaker system, but on his raised voice as the engine revved through gear changes and bumps over corrugations and a sudden slow-down for degraded terrain. We forded a creek, not running too deep, but deep enough to keep our eyes on the water passing by as though we expected crocodiles. A swaying mini-bus can easily be made to feel like a boat, and the raised whooping voices of the internationals on-board dialed up the adventure.

An hour or so before reaching our destination we had passed an older gentleman, in the vicinity of seventy, perhaps: long grey hair of head and beard, a thin man wearing a cap, riding a bicycle. He was seriously equipped, weighed down, twin panniers over wheels front and rear. He pedalled and pedalled, handlebars constantly adjusted to pick his way along an upset course as his earnest tanned face stared past the rocks of the verge and the dust of the motorised well-to-do. We looked back at him from our vinyl upholstered comfort and wondered: people do this?! He’s gonna be road kill, for sure! He must have had some extraordinary choir singing for him in his head because he looked as energetic as Balboa bounding up those stairs. Only, in this fellow’s case, he was looking out toward a nearing line of horizon—Carnarvon National Park—his oasis.

The medicament effects of nature and her primal call to us is no secret. This universal connection, especially to trees, can manifest completely if one really loves them, as many seem to. We’ve all got a bit of the Dendrophile within us, even if it’s only to form the thought of wanting to hug a tree. Regardless of how often it is depicted that the tree-hugger is short a few leaves, don’t be put off enacting your own desire to give it a go. A respite sojourn into a forest to put your arms about the trunk of a tree will give one an emotional uplift of such a degree it results in instantly sloughing off a little of one’s burden. It’s a proven thing. Immediate benefit. Especially when there’s a galloping breeze slicing through the crown. You’re not grazing your knees praying to some deity, you are freely scooping with a ladle from the communal resource. There’s no begging permission. Fill the lungs with a lower ratio particulate count and quieten the mind. The after-effects will come away with you, appetite invigorated.

Also invigorating is cooking for others. On the fire was a Bolognaise, bubbling, and there was a damper in the camp oven, lid covered in embers to guarantee a gold top finish. It would be served with Golden syrup to accompany the tangy red sauce and spaghetti. I was once asked if making damper was involved. I answered with this gold-medal dad joke: err, it’s a piece of cake.

That fellow on the bike had arrived at the camp ground rather sooner than we’d imagined he might. Maybe it was that he’d accepted a lift to the park’s frontier and decided—for the sake of making an impression—to coast in, hale and hearty on his own two wheels. In any case we invited him to join us for bush Italian.

There is a particular walk to be taken when one comes to this place. There are many walks offered in these kinds of places, but allow me to be firm on this point: Do. The. Walk. Plan for the walk. Do a little training for the walk. Set an alarm for the walk…because if you miss this walk and we happen to meet, and you confess to failing to take the walk, you can immediately turn about and start walking in the other direction because we will have nothing to say to each other!

Boolimba Bluff awaited.

The sign offered details about distance and times for both experienced walkers of a certain fitness level, and those on whom the nomenclature tenderfoot is pinned. We all were in our early to mid-twenties so there would be no excuses. We would assemble at the appointed rendezvous, in the dark and not a moment after the appointed time. This was to allow a successful ascent in order to arrive at the summit thirty minutes before sunrise. Impressed upon us was the requirement that embodied the most critical detail: to arrive late would mean the whole exercise would be a catastrophic failure. I know, I know, it’s sounding like a scene from the office of the defence ministry in a 1940s British war film, but it has not a syllable of exaggeration, Sir!

A star, or two glimmered amidst light cloud while I prepared for sleep. The still, towering treetops crowded over the camp ground. I had the hope we would not climb two-hundred metres of elevation for almost an hour, over rough, rocky ground, in the dark, and it rain.

Trees are but half the story of the climb. Their winged inhabitants are the main reason we emerged from our sleeping bag, blearily sipped juice and packed the punch of potassium in a banana for later.

I uncharacteristically assumed a competitiveness for the walk… erm, climb… no, trek… no, yes, quest!

Boolimba Bluff is that way…

I had camped in local (Australian) bush conditions as a teenager, and had a slight advantage, which brought me the blue ribbon on this occasion, scaling Boolimba Bluff. Arriving first allowed time to quickly reconnoitre a camera set-up. In the pre-dawn when one sets up a camera and tripod, while also then needing to wrangle others for a shot, errors of judgement can write themselves into the script. The cliff edge was a semi-circular intrusion into the side of the bluff, like a deep bite taken out of a thick slice of good Latvian black bread (rarely seen nowadays). About eight-metres across, this semi-circle opened out to a hollow darkness, the valley below. There were several thin saplings about the most inner section of the semi-circle. A worn dirt path had stones and roots protruding near the edge of the drop. The path went from my camera position around toward where the group waited to smile, a course roughly following the edge of the cliff. In other words, just to be clear, there was a hole eight metres across between the camera and the group, a hole about two-hundred metres deep. Apologies for resorting to the redundant imperial measurement, but that is over six-hundred feet! I set the SLR’s self-timer, a longer exposure selected to capture us in the dim light. The timer was triggered and I launched into a rush to make distance and take my place with the group. I ran the semi-circle tilting toward the awful maw, the eastern horizon behind me soon to open. Halfway to rounding the cliff-edge a toe of my Nike snagged something and a momentum of weight moved across me right to left, a stumble with a slight centrifugal force twisting me towards the black abyss at my left…

Somehow I recouped and kept on as the group brought up their smiles for the shutter, my little mishap apparently unnoticed in the gloomy light. My adrenal gland, rocked awake, punched me in the face. The shutter clicked.

A photograph would eventually be processed: grainy, dark, disappointing, and apparently long lost, with other photographic materials including photo albums and many of my own darkroom prints and negatives.

The climb of Boolimba Bluff had been hurried, we having been imbued with a tingling expectancy by our affable guide, a natural salesman one could place trust in. He had done the climb often so remained in his tent to sleep in that morning, his task of persuasion and instructions on how to gain most from the experience, complete.

We’d moved to near the precipice of the bluff, my own anticipation had gained a lead over the near-miss wingless flight of only a minute or two earlier. Hindsight suggests blind youthfulness had immediately filed the event under ‘Later, idiot!’

The twilight sky was clear. The form of the valley, which stretched roughly east was coming into view. The distance and definition were enhanced by pools of mist that slipped from the gullies of tributaries and snaked down to the valley, or hung in small drifts like ghost laundry. Natural features and the colours of the valley’s depression animated to higher contrasts through the minutes of dawn. We had been instructed to keep as near to mute as possible, for the earth’s rotation would be conductor, bring on the sunrise, and order up all of that morning’s most important speech.

Quite a few of our group settled to sit. Some others stepped forward as to present themselves for the moments ahead, their features brightening.

We remained largely quiet and set our hearing to the furthest point of the valley, anticipating the awakening we had had described to us.

A long, long way off, early risers opened eyes and sent out feelers, echoes as tangible as the small breaths that filled their breasts.

The slow air, the crispness on our cheeks and the distant, departed quietness drew focus to the far boughs.

Out there, they were coming to their morning duty. The planet was bringing birds to the sill of their grand window, the great curtain-opening, their tunes and calls and answers in repetition came on in the broadest waves, subtly at first, neighbour upon neighbour. We stilled ourselves on the bluff as we in turn caught the beginnings of the true scale of what was occurring, what was coming forth, building and building out of darkness: the scale. It is in the scale of it. Monumental is as nothing in comparison. They inhabit the whole of it. They are everywhere. The world’s turning turned all the birds to the imminent approach of the sun and the sun would fully bring them to us—in their millions. Millions upon millions singing their songs as they’ve been sung for millions of years. Two hundred metres above the sleeping valley floor, more and more, our elevated, attuned ears faced in the direction of the rotating sphere, were met by the countless individuals and their sweet soaring voices. They seemed to awaken at the speed of rotation, the lifted luminance had them take their place, all arising, discreet in territorial domains, calling to each other, calling for themselves.

And their volume grew…louder and louder, in number and timbre, closer and closer, as if striking up sections of orchestral reflections of each one’s power, daily in celebration for their mere beautiful existence.

Nature’s jewels nested high.