Sunday, September 30, 2012

Flowers on The Dutchmans Stern

The wallaby hunched a few metres from the track in scraggly shade, barely stopped his grooming to watch my irregular, stumbling progress towards the car and a mug of tea.
This walk has been tougher than I expected. It's not that 10ks is completely beyond me yet, so perhaps it was the heat and rocky gradient that had me puffing and looking for excuses to stop every few metres.

I'd been longing for years to see the famed beauty of outback wildflowers and the walk struggle up to The Dutchmans Stern was everything I'd dreamed of. Whilst this area wouldn't be considered "Real Outback" by a lot of people, and they'd be quite dismissive of the walk, the further into the centre you go, the drier it becomes and the less variety of flowers there are to be drooled over.

And so, the exhausting expedition at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges became an excuse to stop, bend and click, walk a bit, then stop, bend and click.

But ... there's always a but isn't there?

I stuffed up far too many of the photos. Whether it was my dark glasses with their out of date prescription, or the sweat dripping into my eyes, or just plain stupidity, and not checking after each shot, too many of the photos are out of focus to be considered worth sharing to even the most generous and forgiving reader.


However, a few were worth sharing and many flowers were asking to be described in all their rich, vibrant glory:

Minute hair like stems with a lone brilliant yellow flower 4ml in diameter (about 1/8inch) emerged from the harsh rocky soil, not a dense carpet, but singly, apparently alone, but actually in sparse clusters. They stretch the length of my thumb to the sky, fragile, delicate, exquisite in their perfection.

Other, vine-like, straggle up a sparse bush, drooping vine like clusters of 'egg and bacon' -  golden/rust pea-like flowers, almost hidden by the scratchy leaves and insignificant yellow flowers of the host bush.

Puffballs of gold, wattles of assorted varieties. Generous, vivid yellows contrast dramatically with the red soil. Some have harsh spiky leaves,
others more forgiving for a bare armed passer-by.

Small yellow flowers (so much yellow!) like buttercups, improbably located out here, but appear to follow the sun. I couldn't bear to pick any as they'd struggled so valiantly to bloom in these harsh conditions.

Tiny mauve and white flowers, mostly single stemmed, but sometimes growing in clusters, then, what appeared to be a miniature iris next to some "daisy chain daisies". Is that possible?
Crisp everlasting daisies, with balls of yellow petals, joyous, long-lasting as their name suggests. Starbursts of yellow and white, just like a child's painting of a flower, complete with foraging bee.
At one place there were sweeping drifts of daisy bushes, the profusion of pure white flowers improbably clean in this dusty land.
Puffy mauve delicate things, ranging all the way through to rich regal purples, some minutely fringed like a royal ruff.
White and yellow, infinitesimal things; kneeling on unfriendly, rocky ground to try to capture the delicate beauty and fragile nature of these tiny beauties. You can just see some of the yellow ones in the photo above, the fringed mauve flower is about 1cm (less than 1/2 inch) in diameter - the yellow flowers are tiny!
And ants, everywhere ants. An abundance, a profusion of ants. Do you know that song "Itsy bitsy fuzzy wuzzy worm" and one line is "big fat juicy ones, long thin tiny ones" well, this was the ant version of that song!

Ants aren't my favourite creature on earth. I acknowledge their importance in removing debris and changing it from one form into another. But I don't like them on me, crawling in a focused, meaningful way up an unprotected limb. Ants aren't friendly.

Busy ants, scurrying ants, some neat and orderly, playing follow the leader with deep intent, others bustling, some appear frantic and undisciplined, seem to spiral out of control. So many varieties - small, medium, large, fat, thin, dark, or pale and translucent, all moving as if the other types simply didn't exist. Billions upon billions of ants.

And the flies. The constant background drone of flies eternally buzzing, crawling, tickling, crawling up under your glasses to drink at the moisture around your eyes. And for goodness sake, don't breathe deeply through your mouth. You'll likely breathe one in and spend the next long minutes coughing pathetically to evict the horrible little bugger from the depths of your throat where it will have got caught and is making an unhappy nuisance of itself.

After that unpleasant interlude, you might enjoy the heady fragrance of the sage and curry-bushes, releasing their aromatic oils in the warm air. Listen to the clash and clatter of shale dislodged by ferral goats, the demanding bleat of a lost kid and compare it to the gentle footfall of a wallaby, perfectly suited to its environment.

... and start thinking about recipes for ferral goats and how much better for the environment it'd be if those culled were somehow able to be sold for food.
The gold of the Flinders Ranges wattle on the right, looking over The Dutchmans Stern more or less toward the plane where Quorn is located and Southern Flinders Ranges.

Friday, September 28, 2012

An unwelcome lunchtime guest

Be wary when you sit on a picnic bench.
And whilst that's possibly speciesist, I wouldn't want this Huntsman sharing my lunch or scuttling up a bare limb in protest at me sitting uninvited at his table.
After years of believing Huntsman spiders to be not much more than an annoyance, I've been assured recently that they are poisonous. I'm thinking of all the ones I've caught under an upturned glass with the gentle encouragement of a piece of cardboard to nudge them into the glass to be firmly evicted from the house and shaken vigorously over the fence into the neighbour's back yard with the firm words "and don't come back". And now I find they all could have bitten me. Each and every one.
Actually I knew they could bite and had thought it was what they'd recently been feasting on that was the problem in creating festering sores, not that they were actually poisonous. Out with the vacuum cleaner next time!
Our local Huntsman have an unsettling tendency to lurk in cars and creep out from behind the sun-visor, which makes driving interesting when they're playing hide-n-seek in heavy traffic. Years ago, I was taking an international colleague for a drive on a hot summer's day to see the local sights in my old grey Austin A30. We'd come to an intersection, and I was looking for a gap in the traffic, when he chattily enquired if I was frightened of spiders.
"No, not particularly, I just don't like them on me."
"Oh, mmm."
As I accelerated into the stream of traffic, out of the corner of my eye I saw a long hairy leg waving at me from behind the sun-visor. Next thing the enormous, well fed, but sprightly spider leapt from the visor onto my bare leg (remember, it was a hot summer's day and shorts were perfectly appropriate attire in the late 70's.) It paused for a moment to decide which way to run, then scuttled down my leg and under the seat.
Thankfully I'm not terrified of spiders and was able to pull over and conduct a thorough search for the offending uninvited passenger. Some people aren't so lucky, and accidents aren't unknown. It could possibly explain some of the single car accidents on country roads. If you're scared of spiders and one with a leg span of 8+ cm (around 3") runs up a sleeve or down a collar it wouldn't be surprising that you'd run off the road.
There was another time I'd pulled up at the local petrol station to fill the car and a humungous one waved a few legs tauntingly from behind the sun-visor (they really seem to like that spot). I had two small children safely strapped in, and the spider thoroughly enjoyed his romp around the car, between the children, under their seats, over head restraints, back and forth with me contorting into all sorts of unbecoming postures to try to catch him.
I tried ferreting him out with a bit of paper, but to no avail. Tried poking at him with the tip of an umbrella which seemed to irritate him - no idea why! He finally snuck out one of the open doors and headed for the safety (!) of the fuel cap. Ha!
When, flustered and dishevelled, I finally found my wallet (and checked in passing if there were any of the Huntsman's mates lurking in my bag) and went to pay, the attendant asked kindly if I'd been having trouble with a spider. Note that the sod hadn't come out to help and had been having a laugh at my expense from behind the safety of plate glass. Wimp.
After that I tucked a large can of fly spray in the car...but worried about using it if the kids were in there as it'd probably asphyxiate them too. It seems cruel and unnecessary, but having an accident would be no fun for any of us either.
In the home, Huntsman will often settle behind curtains or picture frames and come out at night to feed. It can be unpleasant to unfurl a roller curtain and have a large corpse drop out onto the floor. But what is even worse is when you pull the blinds and one drops to your feet with a mangled leg or two and contorts pitifully on the floor waving its remaining legs, twitiching in apparent agony. I'm not good at squashing them, because the body can be bloated with whatever it's been eating and it can be gooily messy. (Is gooily a word? does it matter?)
Some people keep Huntsman as pets. There was a teacher at the local school who had one in her classroom. The children learnt a lot about sharing space, tolerance, respect for other species, how not to be frightened and a range of other important life issues. To the teacher's credit, there wasn't one child in that room who was scared of spiders! All went well for months until the teacher became ill and had to take leave.
To the utter horror of the entire class, within an hour of settling in, the replacement teacher had unceremoniously splattered the spider (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten) on the wall with a broom - in front of 30 loudly protesting and protective children shrieking that this was their pet and he was due to be fed.
They were collectively outraged and despised her from that moment.
Perfectly understandable in the circumstances.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Slip-sliding away

Some camp sites simply aren't designed for comfort. Rocky, unforgiving and with a distinct slope. The fact that ours was the only tent within cooee should have been a warning of something not quite right here. But I was tired and cranky, anything was acceptable.

Foolish, foolish decision.
The ground fights the intrusion of pegs being hammered into the red shaley 'earth'. Prickles, at first invisible, make their way into socks and between tenderly sweating toes.

Water, in containers filled at the last bore a couple of days ago has a distinct mineral flavour, perfectly acceptable when all was well, but tastes intrusive and annoying when I'm already irritable. Sigh. This camping lark can be a bit of a trial sometimes.

My nostrils twitch unhappily with the acrid smell of the refuse previous campers have discarded into a still smouldering fire. Double sigh. Off to get the spade and see what can be done to clear up after them. Feet drag listlessly. Bring on a cup of tea!

Later, during the night, after settling and being soothed by the glorious clear, deep sky and fabulous vastness of dark and stars, I find myself cocooned unnaturally tightly in my sleeping bag, unable to move my legs, feet or toes. My knees are wedged at an odd angle to my feet, my toes are bent back unnaturally, sort of in a zig-zag shape. Attempt to wriggle. Nope, not possible. An exploratory stretch of my right leg - resistance. Left? No, equally unforgiving. I'm crumpled like a piece of thoughtlessly scrunched and discarded copy paper at the bottom of a waste paper basket. Mega sigh.

Darn gravity, bloody sloping ground, horrible rocks.

Wriggle, wriggle, wriggle. Shuffle, shuffle. Puff, puff. Pause to catch breath. Slide back. Repeat. I finally claw my way back to the top of the bag by alternately caterpillaring, then clutching at the mattress and clawing my way up the unbelievably steep slope to my beloved pillow.

And repeat at annoyingly frequent intervals during the excruciatingly long night. Why oh why did we choose this site?



Monday, September 24, 2012

River beds

According to Wikipedia, a river is a natural watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing towards an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river.

Good old Wikipedia!

Except that sometimes things aren't what they seem, and it's a good reminder why you should always check your information against local knowledge.

The temptation when seeing the word River on a map - which you see with remarkable regularity when looking at maps of inland Australia, is to assume there will be water in them. After all isn't that why the word river is used in the name of this particular feature?

You've possibly even thought about a spot of fishing and surreptitiously tucked into your gear a compact, secret rod, reel and lures.

Your visions of a delightful dip in a welcoming, fresh, cool and incredibly inviting river will be sadly shattered. Thoughts of gurgling pleasantness, a place to sluice off the inevitable outback sweat, dust and prickles, somewhere to soothe your flaking, dry, chapped skin are pointless.

That word river is a trap for the unwary - and heaven help you if there is a deluge somewhere upstream and you've taken it into your naive head to pitch your tent or park your car or van in the river bed. Foolish, foolish people.

Before you camp, look up. Often high above your head will be solid evidence of the power of a previous deluge, limbs waiting to tumble. Tangles of fences, bushes and bones. Whole large tree trunks, complete with intricate root systems have been swept many metres before they get caught and stuck fast. Photos of cars and  caravans in similar positions of repose adorn the walls of various tourist destinations in the outback as a warning of what NOT to do. As they say, a picture tells a thousand words.

What you don't see in my photo is the sheer size of the horizontal tree. A 6'+ tall person could easily stroll under the resting trunk, and would have to leap energetically to touch the underside of the hefty trunk...

No doubt dislodging irritated ants and shedding bark onto an upturned face...

The sensible leaper would have checked for snoozing snakes and grumpy goannas before leaping of course!

Flood damage can be significant, with roads, causeways, crops and livestock being washed away. Sometimes the considerable expense in replacing them is considered too much and some infrastructure is simply not replaced. The flat white things in the photo below are massive slabs of concrete (?) and were part of the road and causeway near Silverton NSW washed away in the 2011 floods.

As a means of navigation, mentioned as another feature of rivers in Wikipedia - that's perfectly feasible - just follow the depressions and trees growing in the watercourses. The green of the leaves on whatever trees are growing tends to be quite obvious amongst the surrounding dust and rocks.

Below are almost vertical rocks, laid horizontal eons ago at the bottom of a forgotten seabed, then over the intervening hundreds of thousands of years forced by pressure deep in the earth to their current dry position to become a shaley river bed.
... and then of course, are the occasional treasures, beautiful pools, unbelievably cold, restful, welcome. The source of life for animals (unfortunately including ferral goats) for kilometres around.

Most photos taken in the Northern Flinders Ranges.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Aussie birds

Wedge-tailed Eagle - no prizes for guessing the shape of its tail! Commonly called a Wedgie, it's a striking bird in both senses of the word. In the air, they're elegant and graceful; their 2 metre wingspan catches any updrafts or breezes and they appear to glide without effort high in the thermals. However on the ground, when feeding on road-kill and carrion, they're often killed by rapidly approaching cars or road-trains as their heavy bodies are unable to move quickly enough to escape a vehicle bearing down on them. They hop awkwardly, lumbering and slowly flapping their large, apparently heavy wings.
We have friends who (before they began travelling) planned to move all carcasses off outback roads to help protect these magnificent birds, but their good deed went unfulfilled as there were too many bodies to shift in any one day. They'd never have gone further than a few kilometres before stopping, donning protective gloves and dragging heavy, distinctly odorous carcases off the road.

Males weigh around 3 kilos, and females around 4 kilos - the wing-span can be up to 2.5 metres helping them soar up to 2 km and stay air-born for up to 90 mins. Wedgies mate for life, but will rarely produce young during drought. I love their delicate feathery pantaloons which are at odds with their hard sharp claws and strong beak.

The Emu is more commonly referred to in picnic areas as "that bloody bird that tried to pinch my lunch".  In picnic areas where they scavenge for food, they can become aggressive, demanding and distinctly intimidating at a robust 2+ metres (6'6") high.

In the bush, however, they're shy, timid, fast and possibly stupid as they seem to try to run alongside a vehicle moving at around 70kph (40+mph), sometimes veering off-course in front of said vehicle to be splattered messily on the roadside. There, they become a feast for birds of prey, dingoes, some lizards, insects and assorted other creatures that clean up carcasses.
The males generally incubate their large eggs, and are the primary carers for the chicks. As they become teenagers they have that distinct gawky, gangly appearance and seem to trip over themselves and each other as their curiosity gets the better of caution. Domestically, emus are farmed for their eggs, their leathery skin and their oils.
I've just had a look at some information on the web about emus. They're described as "very docile, curious, playful and friendly". Where do these people get their information? Don't believe it. In the bush, they are a wild bird and should be treated a such.

Emus can be curious, but you're the intruder into their territory and they shouldn't be approached as if they're a domestic pet. They aren't. They're powerful, have sharp claws, very strong legs for kicking and a strong beak.

Coming face to face with an emu at a picnic is not always a charming, fun experience. They're big and ugly. OK, that's possibly an unfair value statement about beauty, but finding yourself unexpectedly close up, you'd never use the word friendly. When you've got that head and beak coming at your lunch from over your shoulder, you tend to have a lot of respect for the power available to them. They can be very focused on a free feed and don't always take kindly to a refusal to share your lunch. They'll protect themselves their interests and their young, just the same as we will when threatened.
Delicate emu feathers with a found gold ear-ring on the largest, heaviest red-gum sleeper picnic table I've ever seen. Farina Station & historic town SA.


Friday, September 21, 2012

What was he thinking?

The car with its hefty caravan pulls up in a flurry of dust and stones. She gets out and looks with wonder at the white, salt encrusted lake, camera clicking with rapid fire enthusiasm. He lumbers out, scowling with disgust. This does not bode well. I detect a lack of shared interest even before she approaches; friendly, curious, questioning.
How far to the lake? Can you get down to it? How long would it take? What is the surface like? Is there water? Can you fish? So many questions - so little time. He's already slammed the door and is revving the engine, impatient to leave. He taps his watch with meaningful, sour-faced irritation. With a last longing glance and final photo, she scurries to the passenger seat and clicks the seat belt to secure herself firmly next to Mr Grump.

Oh dear.  A holiday in the desert with long, long distances between habitation, is not the place to discover you have different needs and interests. Entwined in their dance of dissatisfaction and mutual frustration, this interlude highlights what can go wrong when the needs of one are dismissed with irritated indifference.

Lake Hart, whilst it may have been flooded earlier in the year has reverted to its more usual state - producing salt in abundance. It wouldn't rate on Great Fishing Destinations of the World. To turn up anticipating all the rigmarole of a fishing destination was either foolish or naive. The unhappy reality is that there are no cheerful jettys and boat-ramps crowded with like minded fisherfolk, casting lines into fresh, azure water, sharing information about bait and lures in a cheerful hubbub of camaraderie.

Lake Hart, is a salt lake, like most in central Australia. Flooding is rare, yet when it happens sea birds appear as if by magic to feed from the rich waters and breed in the surrounds. Even at its height, it's not the spot for a city fisherman, no matter how strongly he wishes.  

Cocooned close to a sour, pouting partner who is affronted that his plans have been stymied would be a challenge. He appears like the spoilt child who had been promised sweets but the bag broke and everyone around will pay with his sulking offended intolerance.
The gift of an hour or less is all that was needed. Hardly generous in the scheme of things. An hour out of a three week holiday. Evident only is snarling dismissiveness at her curiosity, at her pleasure in the stark beauty and surreal aspect of the unexpected treasure that is Lake Hart.
Much later, at the camp ground at Woomera, we overhear his surly tone bemoaning the lack of fishing. He's spent the long afternoon, sitting on his softly padded chair in the dust, scowling over the corrugated iron fence toward the far distant horizon.

Desperate to communicate, she has sought out female company, finds herself welcomed, nurtured and accepted.

Later, much later, after walking around the strange town that is Woomera, watching the sun set over the desert, we startle an emu spying for camp dinner leftovers, then see the tightly shuttered van, the flickering of the TV, holding two pinched, unhappy, shrivelled souls.

These long hours, sadly wasted in the choking dust of non-communication and unfulfilled needs. He won't be happy till he's home in his familiar fishing grounds, surrounded by the sameness and uneventful familiarity of knowing what to expect. It's going to be a long drive back if he chooses not to shake off his annoyance that the environment didn't submit to his expectations. The flimsy caravan walls can barely contain the discontent of their respective unmet needs.


I've been having a lot of trouble with Blogger lately. Posts won't save easily and photos can take ages to load. I'm giving Wordpress a trial and have repeated this post here ...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Small beach treasures

Fragile, delicate perfect:
Minute fish with bright shiny eyes, gazing at nothing. Too fragile to brush the sand away to better show the elegance of its exquisite spine, perfectly exposed from eye to tail through the translucent flesh. Delicate colouring of silvers, greys and blues. In the sea, it would have been almost impossible to see, not much easier to notice on the beach with so many other larger things vying for attention.
The swim or float bladder of an unidentified fish. The bladder helps the fish float at different depths in the water. It can contract or expand to assist in buoyancy - as the bladder expands the fish becomes lighter and floats up, as it contracts, the fish becomes less buoyant and it sinks. This one was about the size of the palm of my (rather small) hand.
This is possibly (said in a very hesitant tone of voice) a fish egg sac. It was about the size and texture of a jelly bean. I didn't try to break one open, which in hindsight might have been interesting - I'd like to have had a better look at the little confetti like shapes inside. For a couple of days the high tide mark was scattered with hundreds of these little things. 

Focusing on getting a half way decent photo meant I was oblivious to other beach goers, until I became aware of someone staring at me with undisguised wariness from a few metres away. "I'm not a crazy lady taking photos of my fingers ... I promise!" My words of reassurance were followed by a horrified look and rapid scuttling off through the damp sand. It's always hard to know how others view you, and in this instance my words were clearly not reassuring!
How many people had strolled past, lost in their own thoughts or worries, with no idea that the battle to live had been lost by so many creatures under their feet, yet leaving a trail of delicate beauty for us to wonder at?