Friday, 29 August 2014

In the winter garden

There is so much colour in the garden right now. Kangaroo paws in deepest pink and red, clambering pink roses always threatening to engulf the house and wandering native wisteria, leaving a purple trail behind it. The skies have been blue, blue, blue, and I have resorted to hand watering my vegetable garden and a few fledgling fruit trees. It feels wrong, in what is supposed to be deepest winter, but I keep hoping that spring will be a wet one.

The broad beans are pushing their way to the sunlight, and are now covered in flowers. There are white carrots to pull and pink skinned potatoes to dig; broccoli and kale and silverbeet to work into whatever meal I can. We have been eating small handfuls of blueberries and mulberries, and dreaming of the day when we might pick them by the basketful.

The almond blossom has come and gone; a brief burst of dazzling white from out our bedroom balcony.  The heady scent of jonquils follows me whenever I wander down to feed the chooks and water the ducks. We have been bringing armfuls of both back into the house to adorn our dining and nature tables.

We are still waiting for the oranges to ripen and a touch of sweetness to edge out the sour. I am hoping that a load of pig mulch to be delivered in early spring might help their flavour. I have plans to spread it across the vege patch, through the orchard and over the beds of herbs which usually dry out over summer. I am going to scatter handfuls of seed below the compost and pray that the chooks don't scratch them straight back up. They may have to tolerate a few days of captivity.

We are eating eggs for breakfast and dinner again after nurturing seven pullets and two ducklings to the point of lay. The ducks started to lay early in winter, so we had been saving their two eggs each day until we had enough for a meal. As they like to lay their eggs while paddling in their bath tub (I have no idea why), this involves fishing around in the muck until my hand closes around each egg, pulling it to the surface like a trophy. They are at least safe from the crows down there in cold water storage.

Our first chook egg for the winter had me rejoicing when I looked closely at its layer and recognised one of my Leghorns I had though eaten by a fox long ago. She found her way home eight months after the rest of her flock had been slaughtered and started laying eggs in the nesting box straight away. I wish that she could speak and tell me where she has been. We renamed her Come-Back and she settled in with the new flock, roosting beside them in the nesting box until one day the gate blew shut and she remembered that she used to roost in the carob tree. So up she flew, and there she has stayed. She is back on the ground scratching around, waiting for the rest of the birds to be let out each morning. I like to think her survival instincts are strong enough to outwit any fox by now, with the hungry season fast approaching.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Donnelly River

It feels like winter has barely touched the south coast this year. I was back in my bikini wading through rockpools in sunshine that felt suspiciously like summer yesterday. So it was good to pack our winter woolens and head deep into the forest for the weekend - to an old mill town where the cold creeps through the wooden floorboards and you have to coax life back into the fire's dying coals each morning to ward off the chill in the air.

Donnelly River ranks right up there with Rottnest as one of my all-time favourite family holiday destinations. A place where simple pleasures are still celebrated, everything has been left a little rough around the edges, and the kids can roam happily around the old settlement on their bikes. The whole village is a little slice of nostalgia that I can't quite believe still exists in this day and age.

The kangaroos and emus crowded around our car to greet us when we arrived, and there were inquisitive brown eyes peering over our verandah railing whenever we stepped outside. Banging the tea leaves out of the pot was enough to bring three kangaroos jumping out of the forest and up to my side, noses pushed expectantly into my hands for the dinner promised by the gong.

The resident wildlife stayed out of the General Store while the grown ups quaffed wine and cheese at the Saturday evening sundowner, and the kids fed the roos handfuls of lupins and crushed corn. We whizzed through the forest on the flying fox, four-year-old perched on my knee. And best of all, the kids got to spend a happy weekend making memories with their aunty, who has moved to a far corner of the south west. It might just become an annual tradition.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Kennedy Range

Half way between Mt Augustus and the coast, the Kennedy Range rises abruptly out of the flat plains. About 60km north of Gascoyne Junction, itself the tiniest of blips on the map, the ancient rocks that make up the small gorge system were once part of the ocean floor. You can still find fossils embedded in the rock, each layer like a window into another age. The gorge walks are all fairly short, but it can get hot inside the walls of rock in the midday sun. We stuck to early morning and afternoon for our forays into the canyons.

We found ourselves camped next to friends of friends from the southern forests, and the boys all remember the range as their favourite stop because of the fun they had playing with their three-year-old daughter. Spears were made, with rocks lashed to their tips. Many rocks were thrown into the pockmarked walls of Honeycomb Gorge. And baby - Thea's doll scavenged from the op-shop before we left home, who became the family mascot for the trip - was hurled around the campsite in a weird hybrid of football and happy families. She finished the trip stained a deep ochre, and was thrown into the washing machine with one of the dozen or so loads waiting to be shuffled through the laundry when we reached home.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

the outback coast

Our last stop, after a week touring the outback, was three nights camped on the beach at Shark Bay - where the red dunes of the desert meet the white sands and sparkling blue waters of the Indian Ocean. We pitched our tent on the edge of the dunes in Denham and headed out along the Peron Peninsula, on day trips to the beaches near the tip of the cape, and Monkey Mia on the gulf.

We saw an echidna scuttling across the road, sea turtles and dolphins cruising past the beach. I pulled on my wetsuit to snorkel over an onshore reef, drifting over coral and angelfish with always an eye on the shore and an ear on the squeals of my children playing on the beach. I was quite glad to be out of the water when a passing spear fisherman leapt out of the shallows in front of us. "The kids won't be going snorkeling in there - a three metre fucking shark just swam right in front of me," he barked. I had not even seen a shadow, and doubt very much it was as big as he claimed. The sensible part of my brain knows that the reef sharks are not interested in a human meal, but the primal part has no desire to be in the water with one.

We joined the hordes on the beach at Monkey Mia for the early morning dolphin feeding. It was not so terribly crowded - perhaps 80 people lined up along the shore - but out own stomachs were growling for breakfast so we headed back to a picnic table and ate paw paw, bananas and grapefruit we had bought from the plantations in Carnarvon, leaving the dolphins to their fish ration for the day. I wandered back down the beach once the feeding session was over and settled down to breastfeed Thea by the waters' edge, whereupon the dolphins magically reappeared and we had them to ourselves for a moment or two before the rangers and tourists descended once again. Grant got to hand-feed a dolphin but none of us noticed - the boys were looking the other way and I think I was busy photographing the pelican waiting for its fish next to me.

No holiday is complete for me until I have dipped my toes in the sea and dived back under the waves. But we have been a little bit spoiled since getting home. The sun has shone and we have been picnicking at the beach. I am quite certain that the water on the south coast is no colder than the subtropics - both require a wetsuit at this time of year. And the very act of stepping barefoot back onto the sand makes me feel I am still on holidays. I just need to dust off my surfboard and get back out there.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Ghost town

I was five years old when I first visited the Murchison goldfields. My aunt and uncle were teaching at the school in Cue and I spent a week during my first year of schooling in a class there with my cousin. There were two other white children, but the rest of the school's two classes were made up of kids from the Aboriginal community surrounding the town.

I was a very shy little girl and I remember feeling rather overwhelmed at being the outsider, and crying a lot. I cried because I had not brought any coloured pencils with me. I cried when a black girl with skinny legs and no shoes opened the door to my toilet and stared silently at me, pants dangling around my ankles, children skipping by in the playground behind her. I cried after falling face first into a mudhole while running away from an unseen pursuer during a game of hide and seek in the mallee scrub.

I remember running wild and free with my brother and two cousins over the red dome of Walga Rock, ancient rock art seared into an overhang beneath us. One night there was a feast, with snake and emu and kangaroo cooked over an open fire. They are among the most vivid memories from my early childhood; being yanked from white suburbia into the red earth and blue skies at the edge of the desert.

After decades of holidays spent clinging to the coast, following the beaches and coves of the Southern and Indian Oceans, I found myself drawn inland again. We travelled slowly; at a pace suited to our one year old. After a night at the farm and another in a roadside donga we reached Cue. As a girl I had called it a ghost town, but looking more closely at the map I realised the ghost towns were actually dotted around the surrounding plains.

We drove out to Big Bell, once a bustling town servicing the goldmine of the same name. A crumbling art deco hotel and the old chapel are the only buildings still standing. The rest were picked up and moved elsewhere when the mine closed down in the 1950s. We wandered the old streets and imagined the buildings back into being; the children clustered around the old concrete drinking fountain at the school; the picture theatre; and the green lawns which were said to front every home.

Despite the empty shopfronts and footpaths you could safely drive a car down, Cue seemed busier than it did 30 years ago. The caravan park was full of grey nomads keen to try their hand at prospecting, and there was a business or two having a go of it. It is a beautiful town, built on the back of the goldrush in the days before fly-in fly-out workers were even dreamed of.

The shire run caravan park had just opened a swish new ablution block, and taken the showers out of the cells in the old gaol, which had doubled as a shower and toilet block until very recently.  Graffiti in the shower stalls marks where uncles and elders were chained. I was glad I did not have to wander across there with my boys for a midnight dash to the toilet.

The old Freemasons' Lodge, currently undergoing renovation, is said to be the biggest corrugated iron building in the southern hemisphere. I am sure there is a reason it never caught on as a building material for homes in the desert. Imagine those freemasons in their shirts, ties and jackets, sweat running down their collars and dampening their palms as they made their secret handshakes behind those searingly hot iron walls.

We could no longer run wild over Walga Rock - but there was fenced access to the rocky overhang where the rock art gallery is still remarkably well preserved. No one is sure how a painting of a tall ship, with lines of Arabic script beneath it, came to be there some 350km from the coast. So many stories still echoing along the songlines. The desert is positively thrumming with them. We can't wait to go back.