Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Make Like a Bear

After my cockatoo encounter of terror, I felt I'd seen it all and was ready to face the wilderness. Nothing could phase me now. Like a wearisome warrior, with the echoes of battle still ringing in my ears and a faraway look in my eyes, I literally got back on the bike and cycled to the nearest Grampian trail. Ten minutes later, I was at the foot of the path up Mount Sturgeon.

Well that was easy, I thought, slightly embarrassed. Makes all the anxious preparation seem a tad ridiculous. Deranged birds and getting lost in the wild?... - pff, what was I so worried about?! With that, I began climbing. This was my first real hike, and what I'd been preparing for. In my trip planning stage, the intention was for hiking to feature heavily, particularly when I reach New Zealand later on, and I needed to get my sea legs, before attempting a several day tramp. Here was a well-trodden trail, frequented by day-trippers, young and frail alike. This should do me.

The path was steep and winding, and for the first couple of hours I was on an exposed incline. The sun was beating down and I was hacking my way through low shrubs and thorny bushes. No other hikers could be seen. At times I wondered whether the trail was a true one, but other than a couple of retraction incidents, I managed to stay on it. I kept a sharp eye out for snakes, but couldn't spot any, although I'd been warned they are everywhere, all I noticed were a couple of lizards. In fact, I'd been warned Australia was full of deadly animals. Lies, clearly.

On reaching the top, view was magnificent. I stopped for a short break, taking deep breaths and squinting in the sun.

Top of the Mount

Mt Sturgeon Trail Map
As I picked up the trail at the alternative starting point, as above, I had to return the way I came, a somewhat unnerving experience, the trail being as it was rocky, thorny, slippery and mainly steep. Incredibly, other than a grazed knee, I carried on unscathed. Gradually, as I got lower down, the trees began to surround me and the trail was more shaded and level.

I turned around when I heard a whoosh sound in the foliage, in time to see a gang of emus meandering down the slope just behind me. They were so bizarre and large, so out of place amongst the trees, and clashing with my own complacent ease of being all on my own, that I was immediately transported to a state of primal awe. My life of safety in a country where the most dangerous encounter with the wild, would be with a particularly bad tempered goat at the petting zoo, or a mangy urban fox, has all at once been put into perspective of how little I know of this world.

Odd bird
This encounter left me in a heightened state of awareness, which was just as well. For, following the path a little further down, I felt the blood in my veins turn icy as a 7 foot kangaroo loomed a few meters ahead of me. The animal was a good bit larger than those I'd seen until now - either harmlessly viewed from the safe distance of Margie's back garden, or roadkill by the side of the road. Alive it was, and entirely aware of my presence too. We both froze, and whatever ancient reflexes still flow in me clicked fully on. I knew that I need to remain still. Although in no way a bear, nor a dangerously carnivorous animal, I'd heard that roos in the wild would attack if feel under threat. And this being a particularly large specimen, I didn't wish to test my luck. I stood, watching it with my head slightly lowered, trying to steady my breath, and let it watch me, until I could sense that It knew I was no danger. After what seemed like an eternity, it looked away and hurried off.

Dangerous wild animal
Still standing there, the adrenaline coursing through my body, I was no longer the old me - I was now cave me, interacting with fauna, at one with nature. All that excitement and high hormonal release had an unexpected side effect, which was now becoming an urgency. Evidently, upon seeing a 7ft roo when alone in the wild for the first time, one is lucky not to soil oneself. Realising, I winced in horror - no, not here! Not now!... but to no avail, it was do or die. I listened out for human chatter or crackling of feet upon twigs, ensuring I was alone. Remembering conscientious respectful travel advice for the adventurer, I quickly dug a hole, and followed my gut instinct, as it were. Covering my little shame-grave, I felt quite the opposite, surprisingly. Like a child first boasting to their parents with pride - look, mummy, daddy, look what I made! - I felt even more alive. I was now literally part of nature. Had I not have been in a rush to get back to the main road before dark, I would've shed all my clothes there and then and frolicked in the woods as nature intended, celebrating my pagan joy.

Margie was going away that weekend, but had guests booked at the B&B. She called for reinforcement in the form of her not unattractive son Scott, to help with the registering, cleaning, cooking and to generally have someone there making sure I don't tear the place apart in an unexplained frenzy. It all went beautifully smoothly and we even organised a nice BBQ in the conservatory, chatting and drinking, and being The Good Hosts.

The next morning I cooked my scrambled eggs for the guests' breakfast, receiving accolades to my great relief. Scrambled eggs are difficult to get right to everyone's taste, and I'm not one to pander to those erring on the side of overcooking them. It is simply an insult to the eggs, especially freshly laid ones. They must be still creamy and with a sheen, not gravelly and dry.

Having fulfilled our duties of a thorough clean up and animal husbandry, we decided to go for a drive to Boroka lookout near Halls Gap. The drive itself was spectacular - Alpine dense green forests heavy with ferns lushly spilling over, tall fragrant trees, and hundreds of cicadas singing insanely everywhere. Here I got a proper view of the Grampians national park from the observation point. The only slight downer was how badly burned some areas were, consumed by massive fires, a constant risk. We wanted to climb up even higher to the fireman's hut for an even better view, but it too had burned down.

Grampians' Lookout
Getting back Scott and I just had time to say our goodbyes, before I had couple of precious hours to myself alone at the house, which felt pleasantly luxurious. Or so they should've been, but although it was the middle of the day, I couldn't ignore the heavy cloak of aloneness, which would take, I reckoned, a lot getting used to; every little noise was weird and every creak scary. The whole thing became spookier by the minute, not helped by the fact i found Manhunter, the book The Silence of the Lambs is based on, in Margy's library and was trying to relax with some light reading...

Red Dragon
Contrasting nicely with my overdose of nature and isolation, the next day Margie and I drove to the nearest town, Hamilton, where she was teaching her pottery class. I had the pleasure of feeling pavement under my feet, idly window-shopping, and scaring the locals with my obvious otherness. The chilly spring nights pushed me into the local department store to purchase a pair of long johns, which helped me through the remaining few days at the farm. Once Margie had finished her class, we rounded off the day at a "mingler" in the Dunkeld pub, where I was introduced to her smorgasbord of odd types she called friends. Several pints and bonding experiences later, we got back in her car and drove wobbilily back. Similarly the rest of the sodden ragtag crew made their merry way home. No surprise about the vast numbers of roadkill then.

My stay at Margie's was the perfect first Wwoofing experience - I got to get stuck in with some hard work, but not too punishingly so, hiked, climbed, mingled with the locals and had a good old fashioned Aussie barbie. I also began to fathom the complex Wwoofer-Wwoofee relationship, although being me, assumed I'd be smart enough to circumvent it next time... what a fool I was.

I managed to get a thank-you gift for Margie at dull but harmless Hamilton, and we had a cosy final dinner together, watching the sun setting over the southern tip of the Grampians one last time, kangaroos hopping around the surrounding paddocks and cockatoo calling in the sweet air. Goodbye Grampians.

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