A bush idyll



Tonight I found myself crying over a tea towel.

I like tea towels. They remind me of grandmothers, tea and mercurochrome. If I purchase any souvenirs on my travels, it will usually be a tea towel. My favourite is from the Lakes Entrance Shell Museum, one of the finest establishments in this state, and the only place I know of which combines an extensive model train set with a large stuffed head of Marlin (Lakes Entrance: evacuated, still a strong wind change from annihilation).

This one is a jingoistic little flannel, printed in sepia tones with a heading in ye olde writing, “Aussie Bush Recipes”. There’s a recipe for “Drover’s Damper” (nobody ever calls it that), Pumpkin Scones, and Anzac Biscuits, as well as a sketch of a “typical bush oven” which looks oddly like a saucepan full of hot coals. And in the top corner, it is printed with the town in which it was purchased: Cann River, Victoria.

I bought the tea towel at Easter this year. The kids and I had just emerged from a week deep in the bush, at Thurra River, in Croajingolong. We headed into the toilets for an annual ritual: examining how grey we were from head to toe. After a week down there, everything is covered in a film of grey. Little feet become indistinguishable from the soft ground. We were the same colour as my Mum’s (previously white) Forester which we’d borrowed for the trip. Unfortunately, grey was also the colour of the (previously beige) upholstery as well.

***



How to get to Thurra River:

Drive as far along the Princes Highway as you can before your kids start actively hurting each other - about 3 hours. This will bring you somewhere around Bairnsdale (under threat) or Bruthen (evacuated, burned, almost gone). Stop for lunch, then keep driving for another 3 hours. Pass through the open paddock and semi-industrial outskirts of several towns, and into lush forest (burned). Keep driving through green forests, soothing everyone's moods. Stop at Cabbage Tree Creek (burned), for a quick bushwalk in cool rainforest with a unique and endangered species of tree (possibly extinct but for samples held in Universities) before continuing.

After a long, green stretch, the road spits you out into a tiny town ringed by low hills, Cann River (evacuated, partly burned, 200 locals huddling in the school for days). Stop for a stretch, and go to the Cann River Cafe for a coffee - energy for setting up the tent. The kids can go to the playground (burned and unsafe). Grab petrol and ice for the ice box - you'll be in there for a week.

Don't go to Mallacoota (evacuated, burned) - you'll have gone too far.

Take a long drive down a sandy road for about 45 minutes, with kids wriggling and leering out the window for a glimpse of water. After a short decline, the car rounds a bend, and opening up before you is a sparkling river surrounded by thick greenery and spliced by the bridge ahead. To the right the river is flanked by reeds and wanders off towards a distant high hill, strangely baldened on top with creamy white sand. To the left, the water widens to form the opening to a small estuary further around the bend. Slowly drive across the bridge, immersed in the hazy sounds of summer insects breeding in the foliage. You'll come to a t-intersection: sites 1-8 are to the right, and the other sites are off to the left (all burned out). The protected campfire area is next to the river.

*****



Thurra was home to many regulars.  The campground held 40-50 sites, but each campsite was wide and welcoming and surrounded by bush, so that you somehow always felt like there was only you and a couple of neighbours. Every year we would see Barry and Janine, empty nesters relaxing by a caravan and smirking at the antics of children all around. They had been coming here twice a year for 30 years. Once we camped next to my old religious education teacher and her children and grandchildren : I had grown up streets from her children and we had never met (evacuated from their home in Merimbula over New Years). Beneath the fifty foot eucalypts on the bushland side, there were native plants in abundance: strappy dianellas with bright, fat, purple berries, and Midyims, like tiny raspberry segments, that you could pluck and eat.

At night, in a damp year, there was fungus that glowed in the dark. We would do a night walk with the kids and listen for the squeals when they found it. Last year, the ocean was filled with bioluminescence. The rolling waves glowed green in the night as they broke into foam.

At regular intervals, a lace monitor – a goanna the size of a door snake – would slog out of the bushes, curving left then right, only an inch off the ground. They would lazily scout the site for eggs or fish, and then pass on, across the road, and up another tree. Once we found one in our mozzie shelter, its claw stuck in my daughter’s ukulele. With some careful handling, the lizard was unstrung and proceeded on its way. A family in a threadbare caravan had regular visits from a little blue-green water dragon and called it “Bro”. From then on, every year, if he popped up, we would pay our regards.

Thurra was also replete with snakes. There was a sighting on every bushwalk, plenty by the river. In a year of rain, the snakes were everywhere, and in a dry year they were scarce. Snakes are something we live with here. It’s the deal. Serpents go hand in hand with gardens of eden.

And birds. Gulls and Gannets, Sea Eagles circling high. Wader birds in the shallows. Every day we ate breakfast watching the potterings of tiny blue superb fairy wrens, busily gathering and chatting, just like us.

Thurra is (was) the sort of place that makes you wonder how chance could have created such beauty. My only sadness – and it was a persistent one – was that this place must have been deeply sacred for the traditional owners. I wished everything had been different for them. I wished they could be there, rich with knowledge about bush food and medicine, feasting on goannas and eels, teaching their kids how to live with snakes. How to love the country like a mother, like a deity. This place was surely for raising children: the shallows of the estuaries were the peaceful playgrounds of my babies, spotting minnows and collecting pippis. There was certainly feasts at every turn. Many of the campers were devoted fishers: sinewy white-bearded men who would quietly deliver you a bay trout for dinner on their way back home if they’d had a big haul. One year, my friend and I found a huge colony of mussels on the rocks, and took them home and cooked them for lunch.

We would go on plenty of adventures around Croajingolong while we were there. We walked for hours along the ninety mile beach, roaring and stretching out into mist, picking up curious findings from the ocean and dropping them again. Most years we did the long climb from the campground to the top of the sand dune, then back down to the river for a float/walk/clamber back to the bridge, and home. Once we went over to Wingan, to find ourselves in a path through what felt like an enchanted forest of tiny vines and tumbling delicate greenery, emerging into a boardwalk by another estuary. We decided we would camp there one year. That was nine months ago.

So last year, after striking camp and driving a long and happy hour back to Cann River, I found myself in the town cafĂ©, browsing tea towels, while the kids – now early adolescents – picked their preferred deep-fried snacks. They howled – where would I put it? Don’t we have enough? – but it went straight in the camp cooking box for next year. Soon after, I badly choked on a chip and all the children could say afterwards was how embarrassing it was with their grubby mother in stripey pants doubled over and growling - I like to think they were unsettled by the thought of losing me, but it's not true. 




*****

This year, by chance we didn’t go to Thurra. It was too popular and the sites went quickly, so we went to the west coast instead, the unfamiliar side. On the third day, we heard the news: Thurra is burned. A lightning fire (in source and speed) took hold within hours. Campers were told to leave their things and evacuate within 15 minutes. Families picked up children and valuables, stuffed blankets, hitched caravans, and went.

Thurra is black. Wingan is black. Croajingolong is changed forever. The thronging biodiversity of thousands of years of cool, damp coastal forest has been scorched to the ground. 

A man from Mallacoota was on the radio tonight saying there are dead, black birds washing up on the ninety mile beach.

I shared the news with our other campers. The bridge burned down – the old wooden pylons didn’t stand a chance. The kids won't jump off them into the river next year. All our memories – here’s one now: taking tea on a tray with women in sunhats sitting in a river – are only that. And they will go when we are gone. That place now only exists in our minds.




*****

I’m writing this because I don't want to lose that place. But it is gone. A new place will grow in its stead, but it will never be the same. This time the burns seem to be third degree, and across the whole South East. The devil came and wiped the green off the land, and all we can do is argue about who the devil is.

Then again, my children turn into new people every day. They're closer to adults than babies now. Perhaps I shouldn't fool myself that anything can stay the same.

Places make memories and memories make places. What happens when the places are gone? There are so many memories. So much more. I want to write and write and write, because nothing is permanent, not even memory. 

But I look across a map of south eastern Australia, and my life springs up before me. Lying out on a boat on a lake while my Dad told me the names of stars. Pillowy green forests. Learning to cross country ski with my family in Mount Buffalo. Watching the kids find a starfish in Lake Tyers.

On Kangaroo Island, there is (was?) a mulberry tree planted, two centuries ago, dedicated to my German migrant family. A tree, that is (was?) still alive. 

Tonight, the tea towel emerged in the post-summer washing load, and as I took it out and folded it for the drawer, I cried. 

This land belongs to all of us and none of us. My grief is barely anything. But it feels like a fire has ripped a scar in my heart.




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