Seasons of Reflection

Summer –

Warm soupy water

Gulls encircle

A busy silence

I have paddled now for many years. It is one of those activities that you try at an early age and either dismiss or embrace. In my case it was when I was around ten years old on a south coast camping trip. I paddle a small kayak that I have had since my teens; it is sleek and very red and a little scratched. Paddling on my own is a very private activity and offers moments of fast energetic exercise, or, as I increasingly do, a very quiet and intimate opportunity to engage with the natural environment.

To paddle well, the boat and I must function as one. Paddling through my shoulders I can steer not only with a light pressure on the paddle but also through my hips, edging a turn. My thighs lock under the cockpit and the kayak is an extension of my body. As the boat glides through the waters I feel the lap and swish as the two meet.

One of my favourite paddling locations is North Harbour in Sydney. You may think that the waters of Port Jackson are noisy, turbulent and polluted, and in places they are, though usually only in the midst of Circular Quay or after heavy rain. After heavy rains the Harbour is the receptacle of Sydney’s storm water runoff and is polluted for a few days by the thoughtless waste of paddle pops sticks, plastic bottles and cigarette butts carried to the waters edge from the suburbs and meandering roadways. This is the exception and more often than not venturing onto the water is a sublime experience.

When I lived on North Harbour for a few years I would venture two or three times a week from my unit on the foreshore down to the small rocky beach below. Surrounded by Norfolk Island pines and the overbearing density of high rise apartments I was a small speck of interest to those looking from their kitchen windows. There was only one narrow section of beach that was I was able to launch from, and taking care not to be caught by the delayed swell of the Manly ferry I would push off over limpets and Neptune tress covered rocks into the greener depths. Being a creature of habit I would set off anticlockwise and circumnavigate North Harbour.

North Harbour is a finger of water typical of Port Jackson and is captured by the eastern headland of the old Quarantine Station and North Head and on the western edge by the relatively untouched and heavily treed Dobroyd Head. As I worked my way around the cove I would drift over kelp beds and rocky reefs interspersed by sandy stretches. I was always amazed by the quantity and diversity of marine life in North Harbour despite its proximity to the density of Manly and surrounding suburbs. On windless days when the yachts lay at sixes and sevens their mirror images and reflections blindingly strong I would paddle and drift intermittently, all the while peering below. Once my eyes had adjusted to the waters depths and hues I could make out the darting shapes and silver streaks of fish below. At Fairlight reef beside the green Starboard marker where bigger fish such as tailor and kingfish would gather I could see swirls of movement as the larger fish pursued the small baitfish such as mullet and garfish.

In the warmer months I would be joined for a minute or so by the occasional Fairy Penguin on a feeding trip from its colony on the eastern shore of North Harbour. The penguins would pop up in the calm waters near the marina and spend a few seconds on the surface before diving and swimming for twenty or thirty metres before resurfacing to breathe. I often considered how fortunate I was to be in the middle of a large dynamic city yet still be able to interact and experience simple moments such as this. I hope that the descendents of the penguins I paddled with are still enjoying the health giving waters of not only North Harbour but also Port Jackson in a hundred years or more.

Autumn

Sharp sky edge

Mountain top

A quiet moment

We turn the four wheel drive off the highway just before Milton and head up the Pointers Gap Road. The surface turns to gravel quickly and we steadily wind our way up through the eastern edge of the Budawangs. As the road steepens it narrows and on each side huge sandstone boulders appear as monolithic gateways.

Bouncing across a shallow ford, the gravel becomes rutted, sandy sections appear, tea tree closes in as we pull into a tiny car park. Crossing a locked gate Matt and I adjust our packs and head down the old logging track accompanied by the shrill cacophony of lorikeets and rosellas. The open forest is a mix of gum and heaths, small finches and robins flit beyond our field of vision, a flutter and they are gone, their sprightly call always ahead of or behind us.

Dropping down through the saddle we enter a draining wetland and sedges appear. Field officers have laid timber stumps and small sections of boardwalk to keep feet dry and the grasses alive. The footings are unobtrusive, necessary intervention to stop bushwalkers creating a channel and erosion.

We meander downhill and the track follows the edge of a sandstone plateau, water seeps and trickles over the stone, small channels funnel the water into a small creek. Mosses and lichens deep and sponge like blanket the damp areas. A small cascade drops where the outcrop ends and looking down a fine mist splays over rock orchids. This is an inviting area, we sit and listen to the water and the birds, a skink on a nearby rock catches the weakening sun.

Continuing on we pass another creek, this time a little stronger, the bird life is enchanting. It is mid morning and each birds call seems to have been met by a competitor, the small finches and robins warbling happily while wattle birds belligerently ‘yawk’ in their raucous manner.

Walking is pleasant even near midday, the intensity of the summer heat has passed, the typical blue haze and blurred shimmer of heat no longer apparent. The humidity is also lower. It is an ideal time of the year to engage with the landscape as the body is not drained through the combined effects of heat and humidity and resultant thirst. Instead the eye can concentrate on seeing, not just bush and landscape but the texture of foliage, the colour of a blue wrens neck, the yellow of a honeyeater. The mind for its part can assimilate the sights, sounds and smells and consider the landscape and our being of and with it.

Moving out of a dense patch of tea tree and …… miniature forests of stunted….. appear on the next plateau, small granite pebbles edge water pools and the stunted forests give a bonsai or Lilliputian effect. With each step I pass a different world.

We are climbing now, a few hundred metres to our destination, or rather, rocky point at the end of the valley wall. Now on top of Mt Bushwalker we are looking down the upper Clyde valley, densely thicketed and impenetrable in parts. The clarity of light seems to magnify the peaks and cliffs, Pidgeon House, The Castle, Byangee Walls, Monolith Valley and the Seven Gods reach out evocatively. Sitting in silence and surrounded by silence we consider the moment and the meaning.

Winter

Whiteness and light

snow gum palette

A wombat ambles

The mountains under snow are quite different to the mountains under grass. To experience both will lead to different observations and thoughts. When under snow during the cooler months the visitor experiences the contrast of colour; the spread of white juxtaposed against a harsh blue sky, the parade of brightly coloured skiers in a resort area, grey granite tors like candles on a white birthday cake, or perhaps the rich colours of snow gum on an abstract canvas.

I have long loved the mountains, not just Australian but those in Europe and the States. There is something special about the Australian Alps though, something that overseas alpine areas will never have and that is the unique landscape presented by the gnarled, colourful, persistent eucalypts that grow in the alpine areas. Not only is it the wonderful palette that their bark offers, the rich reds and yellows offset by greens and greys but the wonderful way in which their branches and leaves hang. When covered with snow on a quiet and still morning it is an enchanting time to walk among them hearing only the stilted crunch of footsteps and the odd delicate whoosh as a build-up of snow slips ever so secretly off a heavily laden branch.

Silence has long been associated with being in high places and rightly so. On a windless day and when on your own, the silence is absolute. The snows muffle the grasses and shrubs, the trees stand silent and the only noise is that of your breath and of your own mind.

Once when working at Thredbo as a snowmaker I was heading over to the far side of the mountain on my skidoo to check a set of snow guns when I chanced upon a pair of wombats. I stopped and turned the skidoo off; there was little noise from the snow guns as they were still a way away. Waiting quietly I watched as the mother and infant made their way across the open run. In an ungainly way as they are low to the ground and cumbersome, the mother and infant pushed and snuffed along, mother leading, infant burrowing along. It was a special moment to be there high on the hill, in the middle of the night, in silence with those animals.

Just as I have been with wombats on the mountainside in winter I have had the less enjoyable encounter of the sight of road kill when driving to the mountains. This season while driving a number of times the back road from Braidwood to Cooma I saw all too frequently the death of native animals. This road actually has a small signpost that christens it “Wombat Way”. For much of its length wombat burrows are visible in the earthy banks of the gullies along the upper Shoalhaven River. Neat round holes about forty to fifty centimetres peer out of the grassy landscape. Speeding vehicles are the night time enemy of these lumbering earthmovers. Shuffling over roadways they are far too slow and laborious too escape drivers seeking their destination, peering through the high beam tunnel. Sunken brown sacks are scattered along the one hundred kilometre road, fresh dead lie stiffly on their backs, small legs upright to the stars. This year I passed a dead mother and infant, crunched into the dusty corrugations.

wombat and infant

country road

victims of human speed

Each death of an animal due to humankinds indifference, arrogance or ignorance is a loss forever measured.

Spring

Pond trickles

Pollen floats by

Moss spreads its furry feet

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