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Ode to the Gum Tree, the Cicada and the Kookaburra

28 Dec 2017

It’s high summer in Australia. Pictures flood my social media of frost and snow back home. Despite the extreme, uncomfortable heat that I am far from acclimatising to, I don’t miss the snow or long for cold. In terms of sense of event, Christmas was more like an English August bank holiday than the sparkly affair it is in cold countries, and I surprise myself with the realisation that I don’t care.

Here the sun is so high, shadows are mere puddles at the bases of trees, air conditioning in cars is essential, and clothes with waist bands are clingy and oppressive. The heat scorches my skin even in the shade. I have come unprepared and have already been shopping and bought myself looser dresses which let my skin breathe.

The radio stations have finally ceased playing Christmas tunes alongside summer jingles, and things make a little more sense. Blue and white agapanthus flowers appear regularly at the roadside like a national flower. For the first few days I repeatedly marvelled at the blue haze.

Homemade roadside signs advertise fresh picked peaches and nectarines for sale, and pockets of cicada groupings roar like white noise in waves as we drive by – overpowering even through the closed, oven-door-hot windows. Resilient gum trees grow everywhere out of everything, so it would seem. An admiration for these majestic trees increases each day as I wonder at their existence and their ability to cover dusty land with life-giving and life-preserving forests. Not as samey as I was expecting but differing very much in shape and colour. Skinny, thick, red trunks, grey trunks, burnt black trunks, multi-coloured peeling trunks. Sure the greens and shapes that come of fertile, moist ground are more diverse but these hardy beasts are something else. Nothing to be sneezed at, I joke to myself as I think of the nasal clearing power of eucalyptus oil.

My head and body are still confused. I’m not a seasoned traveller and am always very much pushed and pulled by the seasons. To jump, teleported, from shortest coldest days to longest hottest days rather than easing into a season has confused my natural rhythms and I feel very much a visitor to an experience rather than rolling with summer. The shock of early morning cicada choruses and the first blast of a laughing kookaburra has had me hurling myself out of bed at 5am.

Just as my mind slips into thoughts about what time it is back home, we journey onto an unfinished road surface and slow our car to view kangaroos grazing in the valley. As Joel and I attempt to step out to photograph them, the kangaroos bound away up a slope into the trees and are instantly invisible. The dry heat, away from the coast where we are staying, is stifling and am back inside the cool car in seconds.

Rows of mailboxes sit together at the entrance to dirt tracks. I count at least eight homemade, rusty, paint-peeling boxes, hammered, all different and at different angles, into the dry earth. I look back and wish I’d photographed them. Diverse yet giving the same message: don’t come this way, the terrain is too tough for your tarmac only car and your delicate skin and untrained physique. These mailboxes were made by people with resourcefulness and resilience you can only dream of.

We stop to talk directions and wandering off course, and the men joke about the film: Deliverance, and sing a little banjo riff.

It’s now I discover we didn’t mean to come this way but I’m glad we did. I’m glad we left the clean, undusty comfort of the main roads. I’m glad we imagined the harsh, yet beautiful reality of life before infrastructure, and places where kangaroos still feel welcome and free.

I admire those inconspicuous dwellers who live beyond the easy and I indulge in the mystery of their struggle and how much is choice or necessity, and how far the electric cables and water supplies reach into this land.

The dangers that come from getting lost in such a country are so great that “experience” is organised, signposted, controlled. Wildlife is viewed from visitor centres and marked walks.

I know I will return home vastly limited in my knowledge and experience, and will not have seen the Australia I have watched on TV from the comfort of our sealed, Northern Hemisphere, pest-free, modern home, but this experience in itself is a good experience and a true one, and I have fallen in love with its inaccessible unfamiliarity juxtaposed with the determination of humans far far more than I expected to.

(The video above is not, in fact, from the day we got a little lost in the wild, but from the huge gum tree in the drive of our rental property. The sound of the cicadas was often totally overwhelming and we were showered with cicada “rain” (wee) each time we passed underneath)

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