Starting From Scratch In a Wondrous New Land
Long ago, when I used to write educational theatre programs, we often placed a stock character in our plays that we called the wide-eyed learner. This was a naive newcomer who acted as foil to the more experienced types in the show: a wise local bird, say, would teach the newby—and the audience by proxy—all about the local environment. It wasn’t the most subtle of tropes, looking back, but it worked.
I’ve suddenly become that wide-eyed learner again, here in Oz. As we make our way around the wilderness of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, everything is new. It feels like all the reading and research I’ve done in preparation for this trip have barely prepared me at all.
It’s both exhilarating and frustrating. There are times when I don’t recognize a single tree, a single bird, a single wildflower. And yet with the excitement of learning so much, so quickly, committing it to memory, photographing it, making connections between the species, suddenly understanding how it all starts to fit together… I feel like a kid again. Here in Australia, there’s so very much to learn.
We arrived in the smallish city of Port Lincoln (“Tuna Capital of Australia”) early in the morning, not sure how we were going to spend the day. Luckily for us, the state of South Australia takes its tourism seriously. Friendly, well-trained volunteers were everywhere on the pier, wishing us a warm local welcome, and one of them happened to know that the Budget rep had an extra car available. I slapped down my driver’s licence and it was ours. (Fortunately, I had cut my driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road teeth in Ireland a few months ago.)
We mentioned that we were hoping to see emus and ‘roos and any other local wildlife, and the volunteers directed us to Coffin Bay National Park. It sounded great to us—if a bit macabre— and off we drove. (We’re getting used to these place names: “Visit lovely Avoid Point in beautiful Coffin Bay!”)
One of the first things you need to get used to as you make your way around Australia is that the most jaw-droppingly beautiful parrots can be found almost anywhere. (“Common as horse poo,” as one local put it.) Fat pink cockatoos called galahs flocked to the roadside to pick gravel, and I needed to be careful driving past them, as the occasional fluffy-pink road kill reminded me. Perhaps some of the Australians aren’t as careful as I in avoiding them; they’re considered an agricultural pest in many regions.
Coffin Bay is a coastal wilderness where dry sparse woodlands meet the thundering Indian Ocean. Tourists head strait to the beaches, and locals head to campgrounds or race around in 4x4s. (Paradigm shift: off-road driving appears to be legal and acceptable, but no dogs are permitted, even on leashes. Such is life where the world is upside-down.)
As we make our way slowly over a hill crest in the park, I glance in my rear-view mirror and a tall emu strides into view, carefully crossing the road behind us with his brood of wee ones. He must be glad to have the chicks hatched at last—male emus can lose a third of their body weight incubating their clutch, not eating, drinking nor defecating for eight weeks.
It’s a harsh place for young emus to grow up, from the looks of it. Freshly charred earth bore witness to the regular bush fires that sweep through southern Australia; the locals tell us that they’re becoming more frequent and more severe. We could see the greenery sprouting up around the burnt areas, though—as on the prairie back home, wildfire is a normal part of the landscape here.
Equally daunting must be the summer temperatures. It’s still spring, and the air was a fresh 19 degrees with a strong cool wind coming off the sea. I imagined walking through the parched forest on one of its trademark 42-degree days. Or, more likely, sitting cowering in the shade somewhere. I’d almost rather have 42 below, honestly.
These open, scrubby woodlands are often referred to as mallee forests. Mallee (rhymes with valley) is a tree, or a group of tree species that are a kind of eucalyptus. The mallees have lent their name not only to the sparse ecosystem here, but also some of its residents: mallee dragons and the rare malleefowl among them. Walking among the mallee, its tortured wood poking through baked sandy soil, I could smell eucalyptus on the breeze. I’ve actually never cared for the scent—it reminds me of sore throats and colds—but here it’s subtle and natural and blended with so many other dryland fragrances: acacia, she-oak, tea tree, and tiny salmon wildflowers whose names still elude me. (The wildflowers have colourful names here, too. I’m longing to find a Salvation Jane; I wonder how she gets along with Creeping Boobialla and Pigface.)
As we pull in to Yangie Bay for a walk, a large and lumpy shape makes its way across the gravel before us. It looks like a self-propelling clod of earth. In fact, we’ve found ourselves a sleepy lizard, also called a stumpy-tail. Heavy-bodied and covered with armoured plates, it seems to move far too laboriously to ever catch anything to eat. Later I learn that they survive mainly on vegetation, and that males and females bond for life. They’re beautiful, in their own ponderous way. I briefly consider taking it back to the ship as a pet but decide against it.
We walk up the sun-bleached hillside and a family of superb fairy-wrens buzzes out to investigate us. The males are exceptionally beautiful but decidedly shy, while the females and young, pretty in their own right, hop right around my feet as they forage for insects.
Further up the hillside we spot a western grey kangaroo. Or rather, he has spied us, and stares warily for a few moments before turning and springing away. In colour and gait he reminds me of the mule deer that live in our badlands back home.
By now the afternoon hours are advancing and we need to make our way back to the ship. I feel like I could stay forever, field guide and camera in hand, but there will be other opportunities. We leave a little time to stop in on Coffin Bay’s sister park, Lincoln National Park, to photograph the beautiful mineral lake beds there (and ponder the largest anthills I have seen in a very long time.)
We return our car to the Budget man, and the wide-eyed learner in me boards the ship again, a little more learned and even more wide-eyed than before.