‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’

While the beaches in England are chock-a-block with holiday makers – for let’s face it who can believe in the myth of a killer virus on a toasty summer day? – here in the southern hemisphere, winter has set in. The nights are bitingly cold, the warm, morning sun melting the light frost on the lawn. During the day, skies are a crisp, clear blue. It’s perfect walking weather.

Although currently confined to South Australia, we are talking about a state that is larger than many European countries. And where we have set up home, just south of the state capital, we have found a haven from the covid storm. Largely rural, we look out on mile upon mile of rolling green hills dappled with eucalypts, cows and kangaroos. New born lambs, calves and kids are running amok in the paddocks. The galahs and corellas shriek through the trees in deafening chorus. One morning, I drove beside a convoy of kangaroos bounding in single file across the hillside like animated Qantas logos. Alpacas, with their giraffe-like necks wrapped in woolly scarves, watch the traffic passing with a gimlet eye. I have even spotted ‘hosts of golden daffodils’ getting a head start on spring. It is a naturalist’s delight. And it is wonderful territory for walking.

The Fleurieu Peninsula is the smallest of the three peninsulas that dive into the Southern Ocean from the southern rim of South Australia. There are no cities, one major town and a handful of tiny country towns which, in England, would be called villages. The coastline is rugged, and the sea is icy cold, though the dolphins don’t seem to mind. The beaches are strewn with mounds of seaweed sequined with soft, circular sponges and the creeks are gurgling merrily over the rocks after all the recent rains. At Cape Jervis – the jumping off point to Kangaroo Island – the Heysen Trail begins, zigzagging north-east along the coast then up through the native bush, pines and vines of the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Barossa and the Clare Valley, before plunging deep into the Flinders Ranges.

First mooted in 1947, the inaugural segment of the trail was opened in 1976, within the Cleland Conservation Park. One Mr. Terry Lavender, with the support of many local councils, landowners and a mob of volunteers, led the charge to construct the Aussie equivalent of the Pennine Way. It took sixteen years to complete, and would eventually earn this keen bushwalker a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)  “For service to the community through the development of walking trails, particularly the Heysen Trail.” Yet it was not christened the Lavender Trail, but was instead named in honour of a prolific and much loved local painter, Hans Heysen, who is internationally renowned for his watercolours of gum trees, the Australian bush and our often stark, South Australian landscapes. Today, the Heysen Trail is a world class walking track of 1,200 kilometres that runs in a long, wobbly line from the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge.

 The One & Only has recently set himself the task of walking the entire route. Not in one fell swoop, I hasten to add – that would be a hefty two month trudge laden with kilos of camping gear – but in bite sized pieces, so that I can act as his Sherpa, dropping him off in the morning and picking him up 20-25kms down the track at the end of the day. So far, he has completed some two hundred kilometers. It may not have made a huge dent in the map, but, nonetheless, it’s earned him a few blisters and a good suntan! And while he has soaked up the scenery on foot, my taxi service has given me ample opportunity to explore the highways and byways  of this prodigious landscape we now call home – with special thanks to my zealous satnav ‘Daphne’ who likes nothing better than to lose me in a tangle of dirt roads, gnarly fire tracks and non-existent trails.

I have also got a buzz out of exploring a little of the region’s history.

For thousands of years before the Europeans found their way to Botany Bay and beyond, this region was inhabited by three aboriginal tribes: Kaurna, Peramangak and Ramindjeri. Some of their place names are still in use today, albeit corrupted by us non-native speakers. Allowing for a little poetic license, then, those lovely Kaurna names – Yankalilla, Kangarilla, and Tunkalilla, Aldinga, Myponga and Onkaparinga – still dance lightly across the tip of your tongue.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a French explorer and cartographer was sent halfway round the globe, with a remit from Napoleon himself, to fill in the considerable gaps on the outline of Australia. Nicholas Baudin had spent much of his naval career on ships that became prey to pirates or storms, or both. In October 1800, he left Le Havre leading a convoy of two sailing ships – Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste – and headed for Australia, or New Holland, as it was then known. Both ships were packed with zoologists and botanists. Both arrived safely, many weeks later, on the north west coast of Australia. From the top end, they sailed south, then east around the Great Australian Bight, mapping the coastline as they went and collecting vast samples of unfamiliar native flora.

A year later, in a bay just shy of the River Murray mouth, Baudin bumped into British cartographer and explorer, Matthew Flinders, who was on a similar mission. They compared notes and concluded that they had found one single southern continent of vast proportions.  They named the spot where they had met Encounter Bay, exchanged emails and headed off in opposite directions.

While Flinders’ designations have largely remained intact, most of Baudin’s were erased from the official map of South Australia. All that is left today is a smattering of French names along the south coast of Kangaroo Island, and the Fleurieu Peninsula, the only French name to survive on mainland South Australia, a peninsula which Baudin christened in honour of his mentor, another French explorer, Charles Pierre Claret, Comte de Fleurieu.

So here I sit, in a converted milking shed, waiting for the One & Only to finish today’s adventure. Sooner or later, he will have to don a larger rucksack and weather a few nights camping, as the distances between home and his starting point begin to stretch beyond my driving range, but so far the track has passed close enough to home to make collection points easy. This weekend we have made it a joint adventure though, and I have found a cosy B&B in the hills, a stone’s throw from wineries and the Willunga Farmers Market, where I was able to acquire the ingredients for dinner. So, tonight we will be having a platter of local cheeses and a water buffalo cecina from Myponga, fillets of trout from Beachport sautéed in local olive oil and served with fresh, locally grown salad, and a pear and almond flan for dessert, all accompanied by a Clare Valley Riesling. It’s a tough life!

*With thanks to the One & Only for letting me ~ yet again ~ use his amazing photos for my blog.

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Once Upon a Time in Fiji

Earlier this year there was a plan afoot to join a friend in Fiji for a significant birthday in June. Then life got in the way: hunting for a new home; moving in; Covid 19 – and like so many people, our chance to travel anywhere flew out the window. We were sad to miss the party, but also sad to miss the chance to revisit Fiji. Luckily, I still have clear memories of that glorious month back in the early 1990s…

Fiji. A crumbling biscuit in the middle of the Pacific. I had spent several years listening to the One & Only waxing lyrical about its warm and hospitable people, its beautiful beaches and azure seas, its palm trees and tropical forests. He had first travelled there as a fourteen-year-old Boy Scout, returning again and again through the eighties, as Fiji’s quaking political structure caused coup after coup and cheap flights for the brave. Fed up with his on-going, long-distance love affair, I finally persuaded him to introduce me.

In the summer of 1993, heading back to Australia after three years in Europe, we landed in Suva armed with a two-man tent, a five-month-old baby and a pocket full of coins, which was all that remained of our savings. We had no plan, but plenty of time: a full month to dwell in Paradise. I had never been to the tropics and had only met humidity in the tropical conservatory at the Botanic Gardens in dry-as-a-bone Adelaide. Fiji was another world.

We spent three days recovering from jetlag in a quiet little guest house swathed in hibiscus. Then, a garrulous taxi driver offered to show us the perfect place to stay, and drove us eagerly over bumpy roads, to the north coast of Viti Levu. Pointing across the water, he introduced us to a tiny, family owned island, where there was a youth hostel, and simple, but tasty meals provided by the host family.

Nananu-i-ra sits about two miles out to sea, a short motorboat ride from Raki Raki. It is a pocket-sized island shaped like a wishbone. I don’t know if it has developed since, but twenty-seven years ago, the island was still largely wooded, with neither roads nor villages, just a small clutch of dwellings around the bay. We pitched our tent on a slope between the beach and the youth hostel. Every day we played on the beach, dipping our daughter in the warm sea. Every evening, we wandered down the hill to Charlie’s Place, where Charlie’s lovely wife, Louise, would serve up fish, straight from the sea, cooked in fresh coconut milk. Eager hands would gather up the baby and take her visiting, so we could enjoy our meal. Afterwards, we would sit for hours, chatting with fellow travellers and drinking vast mugs of incredibly sweet coffee. Our small, sociable daughter seemed perfectly happy to be carried off by her new friends, who were obviously far more entertaining than her parents would ever be.

And so, the days passed. Now and again we would summon up the energy to put the baby in her papoose and clamber through the mangroves to scalloped coves of white sand, but most of the time we were happy to hang off the wooden jetty above the reef and search for fish in water so clear and still we could spot them without goggles. When we got too hot, we would simply stagger into the sea. After three months on the road, it was a magical respite from continuous movement and a demanding schedule. The days drifted by languorously. We were operating, blissfully, on Fiji Time. The baby grew round and honey-coloured and continued to beam adoringly at everyone. We couldn’t think of one good reason to leave. We had plenty of new friends at the hostel and our hosts were kind, welcoming and generous to a fault. We met up with a handful of western families who had built simple homes at the southern tip of the island, the children taking a motorboat to the mainland school. We dreamed, like them, of staying there forever…

The idyll shattered when the first summer typhoon hit the island with the viciousness of a schoolyard bully. Our fragile tentpoles were torn asunder and I nearly broke a toe, leaping tree stumps to reach our baby girl, shrieking from beneath a mound of collapsed canvas. Suddenly, urgently in need of a roof, we were offered refuge in the bunkroom of a German expatriate further down the beach, a dry sanctuary from the stormy skies and driving rain, for which we were immensely grateful.

Between the daily deluges, we continued to gather around the outdoor dining table of our hosts. As we made plans to travel on in search of new tent poles, we heard that another Australian family had arrived on the island to spend a week or so at their holiday house. Apparently, they planned to host a lovo – a Fijian beach barbecue – to celebrate the twenty first birthday of one of Charlie’s sons. Like all good fairy tales, everyone on the island was invited.

Two days later, we sat on the balcony, watching the young men construct the lovo on the beach below us.  First, they dug a broad, shallow pit in the sand, which they filled with large rocks. Then they built a fire over the rocks. When the fire had died down to coals, they placed the food (chicken, fish, vegetables wrapped in tin foil or banana leaves) on top of the hot coals and covered everything with palm leaves and sand. Some time later, the food parcels are dug out and shared around. Amazing!

Our hosts, a couple from Sydney and their elderly aunts, were delighted to take turns with the baby, and she was equally happy to be handed around like a bowl of guacamole. While the barbecue sent forth sumptuous aromas, we watched the sun go down over the sea, and chatted with our hosts, who had welcomed us in like long lost family.  As it turned out, in one of those strange coincidences that so often occur when travelling, we really were related. Sort of. As the evening progressed and stories were shared, we discovered our hosts were the aunt and uncle of my second cousin. We were now more than honorary family, and as such, we were invited to spend our last days in their beautiful beach house. It was a fairytale ending to a glorious fortnight. One of these days, I hope, we will find our way back…

*With thanks to Google images for the photo, as all mine were old, wrinkled and full of babies – well, one baby in particular!

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Foraging for Mushrooms

Caterpillar: … One side will make you grow taller…
Alice: One side of what?
Caterpillar: …and the other side will make you grow shorter.
Alice: The other side of what?
Caterpillar: The mushroom, of course!
~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Autumn in the northern hemisphere involves a wealth of deciduous foliage that turns orange, gold, rust or russet before falling to the ground. Within weeks, the trees are bare and the earth has been denuded of all colour bar grey. In the southern hemisphere, as blossom peaks forth in Europe, it is autumn now. European trees add glorious colour to the landscape in the Adelaide hills, but here by the sea, the trees are mostly natives, and the foliage is largely khaki. Any colour comes from the flowering shrubs: a flash of lemon yellow mimosa or a burst of ruby red bottlebrush, a dash of raspberry pink callistemon, or a sprinkling of cherry red grevillea. There has been a wonderful abundance of rain, so the hills, burnt to dust by the summer sun, are now a lush green. And the countryside is awash with wild mushrooms.

There was a magic to mushrooms, long before I knew about the hallucinogenic variety. Alice meets a talking caterpillar who smokes a hookah and philosophizes from his perch on a broad mushroom; fairy rings of toadstools are entrenched in folklore, as a place where fairies, elves and pixies gather to dance. Children are warned to stay outside such rings, as trespassers may be taken prisoner by the fairies and not returned for years.

Well, we haven’t seen any fairies, but over the last couple of weeks, wherever we venture, we have found mushrooms: in the pine forests along the Hay Flat Road; beneath the Tasmanian blue gums by Waterfall Creek; in the middle of a paddock, or under the native grasses in our neighbour’s garden.

Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
~ Sylvia Plath

I am no expert on which ones are edible and which are best avoided, but I have since scoured the library for information, to see if I can identify the ones we’ve found. Shaggy parasol mushrooms lurk in the garden. Cèpe des pins, a variety of bolete with their sponge-like pores, love the pine forests. On an open hilltop, several different sorts grow in clusters from stumps of eucalyptus or pine. Are they sulphur tufts or giant gold caps or something else entirely? Then there are the toadstools, shimmering brightly in the undergrowth, their red caps like traffic lights, warning ‘stop’ and ‘do not eat me,’ yet looking so pretty among the pine needles.

Last weekend, as we strolled through the forest above Ingalla Falls, we came across a family who had gleefully gathered baskets full of saffron milk caps, and were heading home to cook them up for breakfast. As we paused to admire their efforts, they assured us that there were plenty more to be found. We said goodbye and headed off with ‘great speedy speed‘ in search of lunch.

As we scoured the forest floor for hidden treasure, I trawled the internet to be certain we were on the right track. Sure enough, we had hit the jackpot and our booty matched the description: the cap was an orange/ peachy colour, concave in the centre, with edges that tended to roll inwards. Many had grown up to 20cm in diameter. The gills were a lighter orange, dusted with an orange (saffron) powder that stained our fingers. Easily bruised, the damaged area quickly turned green, as copper does, which initially made us highly suspicious about their edibility. Yet this proved to be a distinguishing feature.

Lactarius deliciosus is native to the southern Pyrenees, where it grows happily beneath Mediterranean pines. These curvaceous and attractive mushrooms have been introduced to Australia and will grow happily in the shade of pine plantations. They also looked like just the kind of mushroom on which the caterpillar would have sat to converse with Alice.

Scooping them up eagerly, we carried them back to the car in an open umbrella, for want of the more traditional wicker basket. Sautéed in butter with lashings of garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper and served on toast, ‘et voila!’ we had a simple, but tasty lunch. What could be more delicious? And what to do with the rest? A mushroom risotto, perhaps? Or gently fried in olive oil and garlic, then stirred into pasta with a generous sprinkling of parsley. And all the joy of a free meal gleaned from the woods.

Over the years, we have made the acquaintance of a variety of mushrooms, both wild and tame. Long ago, cycling through the Loire Valley in France, we came across limestone caves where a mushroom farm – Le Champignonniere Du Saut Aux Loups – had become a tourist attraction. Not a journey for the claustrophobic, we followed our guide through tunnels beneath the cliffs, and into huge caverns where clean white mushrooms emerged from peat-coloured soil in vast tubs. Sadly, we were too early to be fed – ‘pas de cuisine jusqu’à midi’ – but we did learn a lot about the cultivation of mushrooms, information I have long since forgotten, but much appreciated at the time.

Some years later, when the kids were small, weekends were spent wandering through the woods at the end of our village, on the outskirts of Prague. In October, we would spot local foragers between the trees, who would descend to gather mushrooms. It was virutally a national sport.

(FYI: mycophagy means the consumption of mushrooms. I’m hoping this will reappear as a crossword clue while I can still spell it).

Back to my Czech foragers, who were now glaring at us suspiciously, obviously afraid we would steal their edible treasure. In the Czech Republic, there is a joke that all mushrooms are edible, but some only once. For this reason alone, we could have assured them – if we had spoken more than five words of Czech – that we were absolutely no threat at all. If they weren’t Swiss Browns in a Sainsbury’s punnet, we were not about to risk our lives.

We were delighted to find friends with a working knowledge of mushrooms, when we visited them at their beautiful summer cottage on a lake north-east of Helsinki. One afternoon, we followed the girls into the woods in search of chanterelles. These experienced young mushroom hunters seemed to have an instinct for where the mushrooms snuggled among the birch tree roots. Pretty, trumpet-shaped fungi, soft yellow in colour, with a light, peppery flavour, chanterelles are common in the southern and central parts of Finland. While there are no doubt more sophisticated ways to cook them, they are quite perfect simply sautéed in butter.

Then, by some strange twist of coincidence, my physio’s opening gambit yesterday was to launch into tales of gleaning mushrooms in the Adelaide Hills. While I have no idea what they look like, I can now repeat lovely names like honey fungus, laccaria, amanita rubescens and the more familiar porcini.

So, next autumn, I plan to be prepared with a wicker basket and someone with a good understanding of fungi and which ones can be safely eaten. And perhaps we will even come across a fairy or two…

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Pandemic Panic

We moved into our new house the week after Australia joined the Pandemic Panic. For days leading up to it, my own sense of panic rose, not from the fear of an invisible, insidious virus, but from the fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to move; that the Australian government, like so many of those in Europe, would clamp down and demand total isolation; that we would be held captive in our temporary townhouse, our life already in boxes, lined up in the garage for ease of loading into the removal truck.

Day by day, the rules changed. Gatherings of twenty… gatherings of ten… immediate family… two. Loo roll had disappeared from every supermarket (some cretinous, selfish, chancers had been hoarding – one individual had secreted 5,400 toilet rolls and 150 bottles of hand sanitiser and attempted to sell them online. No luck there, so he went back to the supermarket and tried to return them for cash. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200.)

I felt as if I had been holding my breath for days when Cliff finally showed up with his van and cheerfully started to load our belongings. As we jumped in the car to follow the truck south, the conveyancer rang, and my heart leaped into my throat. Something had gone wrong at the bank. The money had not been transferred. We had no new house.

‘Congratulations. All’s clear. You are now the proud owners of a new home.’ I didn’t know whether I wanted to slug her for frightening me half to death or hug her tightly and cover her with kisses. Of course, I could do neither. Social distancing and all that. So, I just shrieked into the phone. I guess her eardrums are still ringing, so job done. Revenge taken.

Since then, we have passed two months in self-inflicted social isolation. Well, government inflicted, but it seemed only sensible. So, we have stayed away. Mostly. Living an hour south of the city has made it easier. Occasional family sightings prevent total madness. And we are used to communicating by phone after years abroad. I have considered taking up letter writing again.

Months of urgency to get our lives in order have settled into monochrome days of tea-and-coffee-lunch-walk-dinner-movie. We vary it with painting a wall, hanging a picture, setting up a compost bin, planting some lavender. None of it is urgent and only habit gets us out of bed in the morning. Who would care if we stayed put? Had our breakfast in bed? Whiled away the day immersed in a pile of books, a sandwich beneath the covers, an afternoon nap? We could be like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, Grandpa Jo and Grandma Josephine.

I watch the news, but irregularly. Death rates rise, whether I follow the figures or not. Yet they don’t seem nearly as high as many predicted, so perhaps we are doing the right thing. And there is loo roll in the supermarket again.

Our kids are fine, I think. We get regular updates by text or phone and the odd appearance. The streets are quiet but we smile and wave to people on the beach, admire their dogs, grab a pie from the bakery. I chat to every magpie we pass, nod to the kangaroos. The One & Only is trying to keep the pigeons away, showing a marked preference for the cockatoos. Our vision has narrowed, but in an unexpectedly good way. There could be worse places to live out this weird new war.

Meanwhile, I am in contact with a million long-lost friends quarantined around the globe. I text Melbourne. Call London. Skype Manila. Send a Facebook message to Luxembourg. Sometimes it feels as if this suspension of time will go on forever. Then I must stop thinking too much or the panic starts to rise again.

And yet, things are loosening up already. There hasn’t been a new dose of corona virus in three weeks, and the state government has decided that it’s fine to travel regionally now. The numbers on the beach have doubled, there are queues at the local diner – admittedly well spaced – for take-aways. This morning, there were even two indoor tables set for customers. Cellar doors are open now, although they can’t let us taste the wine. However, word is out that this, too, will soon change. Life is returning to normal. Whatever normal is. Fingers crossed it lasts.

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N’oubliez pas Paris

Whenever I go to Paris, I arrive in a different season, stay in a different arrondissement. It means I get to know another part of the city each time I visit, but it also dislocates my usually infallible internal compass. Every time I go to Paris, I feel as if I have landed in a new city and cannot seem to fix the bigger picture in my head. And strangely, every trip to Paris seems to be accompanied by some minor disaster. Yet, despite those challenging moments, and my own inclination to despise this excessively eulogized, pampered and opulent city, I follow it’s siren call again and again…

The first time I see Paris is in July 1984, just after the Chernobyl disaster. I am only nineteen, reluctantly boarding a coach with a girlfriend, one of only a handful of coaches braving the nuclear wasteland of Europe this summer. Thousands of North Americans have cancelled. Our coach is a mishmash of left-overs. We tear through seventeen countries in seven days, or maybe it’s seventeen days, seven countries. Either way, it remains a blur. A cute Italian bus driver, a couple of very cool South American girls in their early twenties, an older couple from Canada who kept complaining: the food (‘Where is McDonalds when you need it?’); the water (‘I have to clean my teeth with pop’); the time (‘Oh, were you waiting for us again?’). Paris? I have no memories, just a group photo under the Eiffel Tower.

It’s 1991. I backpack into Paris in early September with my boyfriend, arriving at dawn on an overnight train from Vienna. We have booked beds at a youth hostel in the 1st arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Seine, in Rue du Pélican, but we are locked out between 9am and 5pm. We ditch our luggage and spend the day drifting through the city: Notre Dame and Le Palais Luxembourg; the Botanic Gardens and the Pantheon; the Louvre and its latest attraction, the amazing glass pyramid; through the Tuilleries and the promise of an Impressionist exhibition at l’Orangerie, down the Champs Elysée and across Le Pont Alexandre III to the Eiffel Tower. I love the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the generous open spaces, the cleanliness, the distinctively duplicated Hausmann buildings. I am irritated that many parks lack lawn, boasting only dirt or gravel, and those that are blessed with lawn are covered in signs forbidding us to sit on them.

Two days of autumn rain descend, and we move inside. I fall in love with the Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, Monet’s water lilies and Degas’ ballerinas. We trudge to Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery, to find Jim Morrison’s grave drenched in flowers and graffiti. We take sandwiches to Montmartre, eat them on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, and buy prints of wet and wintry Parisian scenes as souvenirs.

Fast forward fifteen years to February 2006. We are about to leave our home in the UK, return to Australia. I have been aching to take the Eurostar, – it practically ran past our back door – so we decide to have one final fling in Paris. The One & Only has booked a quaint hotel in Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement. We kennel the kids with friends for the weekend. We plan to make an early start, so we can lunch in Paris – except I forget my passport and we have to turn back at Ashford. We chew through soggy toasted cheese sandwiches on a later train, and don’t reach the Gare du Nord until mid afternoon. Dragging our cases over the roughly cobbled streets of Montmartre, we marvel at the bouquet of picturesque patisseries, boulangeries, charcuteries, épiciers verts… only to find there has been a flood, our room is indisponible. Our first attempt to relocate finds us in a room only two inches larger than the bed, in a hotel where the police are in the middle of a drug raid. A second option has a miniature lift like a birdcage, and a non-smoking room scented heavily with cigarette smoke. The deliciously gay receptionist allows me behind the bar to make a restorative G&T, while he rings around neighbouring hotels. I joke softly to the One & Only that he will have no chance of seeing my new lingerie at this rate. Pierre overhears: he calls another hotel and asks for la chambre la plus magnifique avec le plus grand lit.  He hasn’t realized I speak French until I start giggling. He turns pink as a peony.

The weekend is salvaged with a sumptuous room above the Gare du Nord, an equally sumptuous dinner in the hotel restaurant, and a red rose from mon amour, which more than makes up for the half day we lost rescuing passports and finding a room.

Two months later, we fulfil another promise and take the kids to Paris Disney for Easter. After a full weekend of dipping and plunging, whirling and whooping, I drive for hours around the city ring road through rush hour traffic, so I can introduce them to Paris proper. This time there is a train strike and the hotel can no longer accommodate us, as no one has been able to leave. I have no idea where we end up: somewhere on the western fringes of the city, I think. It is a grubby wasteland, culturally sterile, complete with a long, dreary Metro ride to the city centre. For two windy days, I drag three grumpy, unimpressed kids through the city, trying to find something to interest them. As we clamber up the Eiffel Tower, icy winds roar around us, threatening to dislodge us and fling us into the river.  In less than thirty seconds, we clump back down and buy four thick windcheaters at inflated prices from a stall at the bottom, so we can defrost. We drive south the next day with a sigh of relief.

Another decade, another trip to Paris. Now it’s July 2016. I catch a train from Lyon and pop in to stay with friends in their glorious nineteenth century apartment in the 9th arrondissement and discover yet another nook of the city I don’t know. My friend and I lose ourselves for hours among the ganglion of  narrow cobbled lanes on the west bank. We discover Le Maison de Victor Hugo, and the Vignes du Clos, where we pause for a glass of wine at a tiny pavement café. 

Six months later and we are living in Luxembourg, five minutes walk from the station. I itch to take a train south to Paris. Sadly, northern Europe frowns on spontaneity and, despite the mid-winter jitters, last-minute tickets are exorbitant. So, we drive instead, and park under l’Opera. From our window beneath the eaves of the Saint Petersburg Hotel, we watch the snow drift lightly over the rooftops. It bears no resemblance to the area I stayed in last summer. We stroll briskly through chilly, grey streets, past chilly grey Parisians;  the wind pelting up behind us and knocking us sideways. We meet up with old friends we haven’t seen in twenty years and discover, amongst myriad antique shops, a heavenly little café tucked away in an ivy covered courtyard, where we indulge in coffee and cake.

On our last trip (for now) we catch the train from Luxembourg to Paris for the first day of the French Open. It’s only a two-hour sprint on the rocket-fuelled TGV. We stay in the 16th arrondissement, so we can walk to Le Stade De Roland Garros, skirting round the Bois de Bolougne – a place I have only read about in novels. The room is too small to swing a cockroach, and the bed falls apart as I sit down to lace up my walking boots. But we find a new view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, where we gaze across the Seine to the more famous brother of the electricity tower. I practise my French and prove yet again that the Parisians aren’t impressed with me or my attempts to converse in their piffy paffy language (my grandfather’s word.)

We spend a day melting in the sun at the tennis and dine on the riverbank, a cool evening breeze whispering in our ears.

We discover the Canal Saint-Martin, where tree lined roads accompany it down to the Seine. In the 19th century, half its length was covered over to create wide boulevards and public spaces above, and we meander joyfully to the Gare de l’Est where we meet our train back to Luxembourg.

Farewell Paris. We won’t forget you.

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Thailand: First Impressions

So, it’s 1994.  We have just landed in Thailand, amid the chaos of Bangkok traffic, pollution, and humidity thick as golden syrup, heavy as a winter duvet. I have never been to South East Asia before. I am overwhelmed by the noise, the smell, the heat, the sights. It’s a sensual overload for which I wasn’t prepared.

Traffic here is as bad as we were warned – worse. A far cry from the orderly, symmetrical streets of Adelaide. I have yet to be involved in a real Bangkok traffic jam, though I’ve been regaled with many unlikely tales of beer stocked in the boot to lighten the mood of a three-hour car journey to travel a measly three kilometres. (Little could I know that a year later I would be sitting behind the steering wheel,  knee deep in mopeds at a gridlocked crossroads,  trying to breastfeed my bellowing baby, while my gobsmacked guest sits anxiously by my side, waiting to change gears on the off chance we ever start to move.)

I am in wide-eyed awe of the driving here: kamikaze motorbikes dodge and weave between battered old taxis, scoot up onto the footpaths, unfastened helmets perched atop their heads like storks nests; gloating new BMWs and Jags, the shiny toys of the rich kids, play dodgems with millimetres to spare; tuk-tuks duck round buses that snort out black smoke like angry dragons; swaying elephants lumber down the inside lane, their poor padded feet scorched by the burning asphalt. Rules? To hell with those. I am advised to keep my eyes forward, let the guy behind worry about my rear. 

(This blinkered approach, I will soon learn, is the only way to drive safely through the streets of this mad city. In these early days, cocooned in an air-conditioned car with a practised local driver at the wheel, removed from the immediacy of smog and cloying heat, it is like watching a life-sized video game through the window. Soon enough I will come to know the joys of zipping round the city in the back of a tuk-tuk, always a hair’s breadth from being tumbled into the gutter, a couple of pounds of rusty metal and a lawn mower engine all that lies between us and certain death.)

I long for the icy wind-tunnel that is the passage at my parent’s house in the winter. Ironically, it is only now, immersed in air conditioning 24-hours a day, that my daughter and I have heavy colds. 

It is the rainy season here and the rain comes like clockwork. An hour-long deluge at 3pm that floods the roads and fills the drains to overflowing, while the sky puts on a fireworks display of thunder and lightning. Maids struggle home with their bags on their heads, wading down the back lanes through filthy, waist-high water, armloads of electric cables looping heavily from teetering poles, dipping down to meet the rising tide. I anticipate disaster when the two finally collide, but so far, so good. Every storm dislodges a few more paving stones on the rough-and-ready footpaths. On Sukuhumvit, an elderly blind man trips and falls on the uneven sidewalk, and I am the only one to rush forward and lift him up, attempt to tend to the deep graze on his shin. He waves me away and sits on the step, wailing. I return his stick and he hobbles off, still wailing. No one takes a scrap of notice. A pile of bricks against the wall would suggest someone started on repairs, but lost interest. Thai time is like Fiji time, it seems. No rush. Hasta manana, or better still, hasta la vista. (In modern Aussie parlance. ‘Laters.’)  

There is poverty here, patently obvious, in-your-face, poverty, that squats by the side of the road, staring through dull eyes, in sharp contrast to the rising middle class, the dazzling wealth at the top of the tree. Strolling through the bright new shopping malls, overflowing with replicas of every American clothing store, Asian supermarket, tourist trap and popular chain food restaurant, it is easy to turn a blind eye for a moment or two. Put one foot out into the street and it slaps you in the face like a wet flannel. A one-armed beggar, a clutch of grubby children in ill-assorted t-shirts scavenging for food, a makeshift stall selling heaven-knows-what cheap eats to tuk-tuk drivers. Rusting petrol cans are recycled as rubbish bins that are overflowing, mostly with cigarette stubs. A murky klong (canal) swirls with first world detritus (plastic bags and plastic bottles, a slick of oil) as a noisy longboat roars past, making waves against rickety bamboo jetties where scrawny old men in loincloths throw a line to whatever three headed fish they can catch in this polluted stream. The waft of a smelly drain or a filthy klong makes my nose pucker. A herd of screeching, skeletal feral cats with bent tails rummage in the bins, or lounge like Nero on the ubiquitous scaffolding, licking grimy paws.  

Street cleaners sweep up the leaves into neat piles, as the whirling plastic bags wrap around their ankles. Building materials are stacked haphazardly around copious building sites. Concrete dust layers every surface with a thick skin, as huge, five-star hotels go up apace, squeezed between the precariously balanced, corrugated iron dwellings of the neighbouring slums. Café tables steal across the pavements, wrapped in garish pink plastic tablecloths, set with thin paper napkins, plastic cups, tin spoons and forks, melamine plates. And surprise! The food they serve in these squalid surroundings is really tasty. 

Most of the women I pass are immaculate, neatly arrayed in pressed blouses, stockings and polished shoes, their hair shiny-clean, in tight, neat buns or slick ponytails. All pause to throw a smile or stroke the white-blonde hair of my small daughter. Further downtown, where sex shops and brothels abound, it is the kathoeys that make the most fuss. It is a while before I realize that these flamboyant, sexy women in heavy makeup and high heels clustering round us, cooing and clucking, stroking and giggling, are actually lady-boys. As beautiful and fine-boned as their female counterparts, the only give-away is a slightly enlarged Adam’s apple or a tenor voice. But they are gentle, friendly and kind, and we feel perfectly safe with these glamorous girls. Unlike the coachloads of Korean tourists who descend like locusts on my blond baby and her pink trike. It is the only time I have seen my husband visibly angry, as he wades through, trying to reach us, rescue us from a rising tide of flashing cameras, pinching fingers. (It made an impression, even on our tiny two-year-old, who has ever since looked unfavourably upon zoos, and she quickly develops a throaty growl, like a cornered lion cub.)

Now, she preens beneath the eyes of these handsome young kathoeys, showing off her new trainers, the latest trend for toddlers. A happy distraction when we go shopping, they also prove a blessing. Squeaking at every step, flashing lights and sparkling with sequins, they have proved a vital necessity in a crowded department store, where she is prone to dive under clothing racks when overwhelmed by all the people, and I can only locate her by the irritating squawk of her disco shoes. 

Shopping here is challenging, even without the constant hide-and-seek with a toddler. Surprisingly little English is spoken – given the volume of international tourists – and my Thai language skills consist of Sawadee-kha, Khap-khun-kha and counting to ten. Our grocery bill is huge. Imported goods are heavily taxed and I have no idea about local products, even local fruit and veg. It is my first time in South East Asia. I am so ignorant. It would be terrifying if I didn’t find it all so fascinating. Broccoli and lettuces are bonsai-sized and ruinously expensive. I walk up and down the aisles trying to pluck up the courage to take something – anything – off the shelves. (Soon I will become familiar with the putrid Durian, forbidden to darken the doors of many hotels, and it’s engorged cousin the prickly jackfruit; the dragon fruit with its glorious thick red coat; the rambutan with its feathery spikes, the plump, aubergine-coloured mangosteens and the armadillo-like custard apple with the soft, melt-in-the-mouth centre.) In relief, I discover the elfin bananas, the sunset pink pomelo, like a sweet grapefruit, and the nutty pink papaya with the texture of avocado that I recognize from hotel breakfasts.

Such a strange new world.

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Staccato

Obituary

 He was my favourite poet through high school. He died on April Fool’s Day. Not corona virus – not everyone does – but old age. I didn’t know till today.

The obituary says Bruce Dawe was a postman. A poet. A gardener. An academic. An airman. A Vietnam Vet. He had four university degrees (BA, MLitt, MA, PhD). All acquired through part-time study. He won a swathe of literary prizes. I didn’t know that either, but I’m not surprised.

We read ‘Homecoming’ and the ‘Not So Good Earth’ and learned about irony, war and death. He wrote about death a lot. (Ironic that he lived to ninety). And footy. And cornflakes. A suburban poet. Our poet. Our conscience. Constantly protesting life’s inequalities. His prolific, staccato style appealed to those of us baptized in Shakespearean sonnets, Romantics who rhyme.   (Is it still a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?’)

‘The forests sigh and fall’

I dip into the forest by Ingalla Falls for fresh air, exercise. A city of pine trees eighty feet high. Fire tracks like empty highways during Covid-19. Several trees have toppled. Knocked others over, as they crash to the ground. Jenga. ‘The forests sigh and fall,’ agrees Dawe.

A bank of ferns. No deer here though, in this antipodean forest. No ‘bummer of a birthmark Hal.’ (No Larsson either). A single kangaroo starts up at our heavy tread on pine needles and bounds silently away. A gorge disgorges a creek over jagged rocks. Wind whips through the pines, sounds like waves crashing on the beach. The harsh shrieks of black cockatoos catch at our ears.

“Alert! We see you squatting there, like a warning light in your bright red fleece. A call of nature. But beware, nature might call for you. Brown snakes, bull ants, nettle rash on your bare behind. More than you bargained for.”

‘Like butterflies in the socket of a skull’

Common brown butterflies careen through the air, like sparks from a fire. Dolly Parton wrote a song about butterflies and love.  ‘Soft and gentle as a sigh.’ Dawe used them as a stark simile of war. The juxtaposition of watching kids play hide-and-seek in WW II pill-boxes in Penang: concrete bunkers with slits where soldiers hid with machine guns. Waiting to annihilate the unwary.

Years ago, I watched a TV program. A Queenslander, tightly permed, rotund. In a sweater with a butterfly embroidered across her ample breast. Teaching English to post-war refugees escaping the not-so-good-earth. ‘Say bu-a-floy’ she demands of her petite Vietnamese students, pointing at her chest. They dutifully mimic her nasal tones, her broad Ocker accent. More like butterflies than she will ever be in her caterpillar skin. 

Lone Pine

We trudge up a steep track, a hill laid bare.  A Gallipoli of pine trees. ‘Grey trunks and limbs litter the paddock like a battlefield,’ Dawe wrote eloquently. (He wrote a lot of anti-war poems.) Fairy land has been exhumed. Turned to mud and stubbled trunks, like broken teeth. Yet golden mushrooms grow into the light, in this bald space in the centre of the forest. 

We pass a dead digger. I recall a picture book ‘Are You My Mother?’ A baby bird has lost his mother. Until the ‘Snort’ puts the baby back in its nest, where its mother is waiting.

We emerge below the tree line. Paddocks have turned green overnight. Ironed out by rain. White blobs dot the hillside. A line of narrow gumtrees stand shoulder to shoulder along the hilltop. Catch the sky between their fencepost trunks.

It is ANZAC Day. A national day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders, to commemorate those of us who served and died in war or conflict. We say together ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,’ Our fallen. And ‘the vanished eyes of the skull wink with young laughter, the jaws are mottled with lichen,’ weeps Dawe.

Today, at Gallipoli, a lone Turkish gardener lays a wreath.

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Trailblazing

As he stands being you and lifts the pack onto your shoulders, your knees buckle, and you feel the urge to tip over, fall flat on your back. You quail, unnerved by the unexpected weight. Are you completely insane to do this? Or can the pioneering spirit hidden deep inside your faltering heart speak up and inspire you to hike through virgin wilderness for five days?

Remember, if you please, that you love walking; can happily walk for weeks, along beaches, through city streets, across rolling, gentle English countryside. You don’t mind the odd blister – par for the course, just don’t forget to pack the band aids – and you rarely complain about rain, as long as you don a good raincoat and invoke the promise of a hot shower at the end of the day. Mountains don’t provide much motivation – you would rather go around than over, if you’re honest – but you won’t quarrel with the odd hill. And don’t forget your love of maps, a detailed plan, a good sense of direction, and that gratifying sense of achievement when you reach your destination. OK, you may prefer a circular route, but Dad assures you that it’s usually quite a different view when you turn around and walk back along the same path.

You have done plenty of walking with the One & Only, and you have always been perfectly happy in each other’s company. Together, you put the world to rights and plan the future over and over again, changing the story a little every time, or rediscovering old favourites. Occasionally, you may even walk quietly, in single file up a narrow track, enjoying the world around you: the birds, the plants, the trees, the view.

The One & Only has been enormously encouraging about this next Big Adventure. He has done several treks through the Tasmanian hinterland and is full of the joys of long-distance hiking. Apparently, he explains eagerly – like chapter headings – it is good for improving your upper Body Strength, and it’s good for The Soul. It Lightens your Heart to get out into the world, get into your stride and Soak up Nature. It improves your Sense of Self-Worth, your Self-Reliance, and your General Health. And you have bought into The Dream, the magic of the Great Outdoors quite willingly, your youthful brain obfuscated, beclouded and bewildered by every highfalutin’ word of it.

In reality, you realize with a jerk – like Snow White emerging from a dream of talking animals and singing garden gnomes – this little holiday threatens to be an endurance test; a test that may shatter your glorious, romantic daydream into a million pieces. Perhaps you ARE an audacious, impetuous trailblazer… or perhaps you’re only a misguided, soon-to-be limping fool.

Lurching sideways, weighed down by your Great Burden, you now see clearly the Dangerous Journey ahead in worrying shades of charcoal grey: no longer Snow White tripping gaily through the woods, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim facing a Terrible Trek. More than fifty kilometres of gruelling slog, amid the promise of constant rain. Hours of armed combat with the undergrowth. Days of wallowing and floundering about in thigh-deep mud across the Sodden Lodden Plains; of trudging through dark and gnarly, root-infested forest, that whispers the threat of those fairy tale Rodents of Unusual Size hiding behind every broad trunk.  Teetering on slippery rocks through fast-flowing icy rivers that grasp eagerly at loosened laces. Fighting off those aggravating, persistent, ubiquitous blowflies that invade every orifice, and refuse to be distracted or deterred by fluttering hands and foul language. Eventually arriving at your designated campsite to the promise of a damp sleeping bag and a thoroughly un-nourishing dinner of freeze-dried meat that needs two days soaking in hot water to give it the delectable consistency – and taste – of soggy cardboard, accompanied by a generous serve of instant mashed potato (disarmingly known as Deb), and topped off with a mug of molasses-black, midge-filled tea. All this gourmet cuisine plus twenty kilos of camping gear strapped to these skinny shoulders for FIVE WHOLE DAYS! 

Finally, the last lap, clambering and stumbling up rugged cliffs, in order to reach the promised Nirvana, the crème de la crème of all views: a cap-shaped peak in the middle of nowhere. A peak, I might add, that will inevitably be shrouded in low lying cloud the moment you arrive. And then to turn around and do it all the way back again? What on earth were you thinking?

Thus, your light-hearted, excited plans – the scrutiny of deliciously detailed maps, the forays to the camping shop for new boots and a Trangia, the acquisition of top-notch sleeping bags to keep you warm in a blizzard, the investigation of suitably light and transportable meals, the trial-run to pack everything efficiently in our shiny new backpacks – have ended in something akin to a small elephant being tossed onto your crumpling, complaining back. How will you ever survive this nightmare? Your backpack weighs a ton and you are struggling to stand upright. And you haven’t even made it out the front door.

But where is your courage, woman? Your sense of adventure? Your usual do-it-or-die attitude to life? Stop being such a wimp. Buck up and take the plunge. Those meek little Australian marsupials are only pygmy-sized. Mud is dirty, not deadly. And flies, well… flies are flies, not Vampire bats or Killer bees. Inevitable but not lethal. And a heavy backpack won’t kill you either! Just remember, it nearly always turns out better than you anticipated… 

*Thanks to Google images for the lovely photo of Frenchman’s Cap, Tasmania

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To Cough or Not to Cough

The Lorax by Dr Seuss

And the question is: when I pick up the phone, do I mention the ‘C’ word – (as in coronavirus or COVID-19)? Or can we talk about something else: pretend we are living in a bubble so far removed from the epicentre of the drama as to make us virtually immune? Scenes from our local supermarkets would suggest otherwise – or else everyone in Adelaide has a chronic dose of gastro and a craving to bake. We are told there should be no hugging and kissing in case of infection, but closely packed hoards queuing at Coles are to be expected. So many stories, so much panic, it has been hard to decide what is wise advice and what is verging on the ridiculous.

Containing an airborne virus on a global scale is not an easy task in anyone’s book. As we worry about every sniffle, take our temperatures three times a day and try to decide whether that headache at three in the morning is because of anxiety, COVID-19 or a possible brain tumour, the stories from abroad are so thickly spread through the newspapers that Royal dilemmas and Brexit have been totally out-manoeuvred.

We are not in total lock down in South Australia. Warnings are largely about social distancing, self-isolating and no unnecessary travel. Be cautious. Stay calm. Like a clam.

I like the safety of our small, seaside town. Coming to the city is scary, but I need to collect my new glasses. Reading is our only occupation now and my old glasses are giving me headaches. Suddenly I am acutely aware of everything I touch.

I see my parents for an afternoon and worry whether I have passed on the virus through the fresh salad I have made. They are in the danger zone age-group, and my father has asthma.

I drop in on my aunt. She is on her own and would like some company. She is also in the danger zone, so we don’t touch. We sit in the garden, several feet apart and drink wine and gossip and giggle. My son picks me up later and fixes her iPad so she can watch all the concerts she has downloaded but can’t hear. Then I worry that she didn’t wipe down the iPad after we left.

My daughter and her household have been self-isolating and working from home for a fortnight since she and her partner got colds that may or may not have been COVID-19. Just as they are set to escape the house, he is sick again. Can he take the test, if only to put everyone’s mind at rest? Or is it simply a change of season cold, a time when more viruses run amok than we can count?

It seems unfair that any other diseases or viruses should even get a cameo performance while COVID-19 has centre stage. Earlier reports have suggested that pollution is a bigger killer than this mealy-mouthed old virus. Reports from Madrid, Milan, New York suggest otherwise, but while we are being bombarded by the press (is nothing else happening in the world?) we seem to be in a relatively secure bubble. My greatest problem is finding anyone to sell me toilet paper, pasta or flour.

After weeks of round-the-clock news about the corona virus, I feel I will be forever mired in a swamp of inflammatory language that is starting to drive me crazy. Maybe I risk being blasé, but sometimes I wonder if this is simply nature’s way of keeping a balance. Particularly as mankind seems intent on self-destruction. I received this message on Facebook recently (the stage directions are mine):

Mankind: (in a whiny voice) There’s no way we can shut everything down in order to lower emissions, slow climate change and protect the environment.

Mother Nature: (sharply) Here’s a virus. Practice.

Have you ever read The Lorax? First published in 1971, Dr Seuss captured for kids the tale of man’s selfish and greedy destruction of the planet in favour of economic ‘biggering’. Confronted by the Lorax, who ‘speaks for the trees’ (well, someone’s got to), the Once-ler refuses to tone down the environmental damage he is doing, as he demolishes acres and acres of glorious Truffula trees in order to produce a completely pointless ‘Thneed.’ If you don’t remember the book, you may have seen the movie. Not my favourite adaptation, to be honest, but undoubtedly it captures a new, and potentially larger audience than the Seuss original.

Well, the Lorax and Mother Nature appear to have connived, and made another bid to be heard. As industry shuts down in a domino effect around the globe, the coronavirus lockdown is having a dramatic effect on deadly air pollution from Wuhan to Mumbai and New York to Rome. Cities that have long held records for some of the worst air pollution in the world can suddenly see the sky. ‘It is a silver lining in terms of this awful crisis that we can step outside and breathe,’ says one observer in Delhi.

As planes come down to rest, driving is restricted and factories have pressed the pause button, jaundiced skies around the world are clearing. Fish, cormorants, crabs and plant life are now visible in Venice’s clear blue canals. Horizons are no longer as murky as they were six months ago.

Pollution levels, the papers tell me, have dropped by more than 50% in many parts of Europe since so many countries have shut down for fear of an untrammelled virus that has currently killed around 70,000. But do we worry about the 7 million people around the world who die annually from diseases related to poor air quality? And these same vulnerable people are most likely to die from Covid-19. Ironic isn’t it?

What will it take to make us sit up and listen? Modern medicine – with its antibiotics, flu jabs and vaccines – has done much towards saving lives, and slowing down natural selection to a dull roar. The Grim Reaper is no longer as staggeringly destructive in maternity wards as he once was – at least in many countries, that’s the case. Like the Onceler’s business, our human population is continuously biggering and biggering and biggering. On a small blue planet that has been struggling for decades to contain us, what can be done to reduce our chronic impact on this beautiful world?

So has Mother Nature sent us a virus to make us sit up and see what can happen if we are prepared to change the world order? Less pollution., less consumption, less waste… less people? War and disease, plagues and pestilence have slowed us down in the past, made us pause to reconsider the impact we have. But how much do we really learn? How many of us are prepared to take advice from older generations who have learned the hard way? How much are we prepared to alter and adapt the way we live to ensure a future for our children and our grandchildren? How does economic biggering really help us survive as a species? Or are we destined to create a smouldering, smoggy ball out of our beautiful, vulnerable blue planet?

  • with thanks to Google images – and Dr Seuss! – for the Lorax pic.
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A Feast of Birds

Galahs, of the blushing, watermelon-pink breasts,
squawk and gnaw at the bark of grey-skinned gums
The neighbour’s palomino pigeons swoop and loop
like fighter pilots in formation,
banking through a hair’s breadth between branches
Down below, the diminutive and dainty native variety,
their quirky quiffs quivering through the garden beds,
pick-pick for seeds or scraps of worms.
Tiny, tawny, roly-poly sparrows twitter sweetly, like Disney birds,
and bob about beneath the shrubbery,
using the wild olive as camouflage from the bigger, bossier fowl,
outgunned by the outspoken, cacophonous screeches of the indigenes.


An early morning breeze recites poetry through the leaves
which the magpies punctuate with their warbling gurgle,
and raucous demands for breakfast ‘if-you-please!’
Down in the valley a solitary kookaburra roars with laughter,
ridiculing the world for its precarious pretensions, or perhaps
mocking the hook-nosed ibis as it high-steps along the river bank.
On the horizon, the sun slips smoothly, peach-like above the hills,
turning the grass from gun-metal grey to old ivory
and flecking the gum leaves with kaleidoscopic sparkles.
Through the wispy fronds of a casuarina I catch a glimpse of the sea, white capped and eager to start the day, like a bumptious puppy,
while the soft, cotton ball clouds drift across the broad, blue sky.

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