Tag Archive: nature


Mud Skippers

A solitary truck whizzes past and startles Flora, she isn’t a timid dog, but the sudden noise and powerful waft of air causes her to skitter. As if he could hear me I shout after the departing truck. ‘No need for that! Inconsiderate so-and-so. You could have given us a wider berth!’

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Mud, mud, glorious mud. Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. Particularly in Winter!

The weather has been icy for several days. Cabin fever, like throwing darts left handed, an issue that can’t be fixed unless you switch back to your normal pattern of behaviour.  Dog walking helps to dissipate the frustration, but my agitation is obvious.

No other life forms are walking the streets today, even the main road is quiet. Biting cold has muted the world. A torpid steel grey sky presses upon us, urging abandonment of our walking project. Extreme cold weather is the worst case scenario for my business, it debilitates and destroys confidence. It feels as if the ice will never leave.

Bos ready to play

Bosley, primed and ready 🙂

Bosley stands on his snow patched lawn, blue jacket tucked in neatly like a kindly soldier on parade. His face says.

‘Look at me John I am ready for a tour of duty. Let’s hit the beach heads.’

Ms Lockett is always grateful if we stop by and take Boz along, she has become progressively less able to promenade him since suffering a mild stroke. (Bosley – Lockett  – 07801873600) are the details on the tag dangling from Bosley’s collar.

Ms Lockett is a throwback to the hippie era, free love and all that guff.  She is often working in her garden, mauve scarf tied around her head, baggy cargo pants, black Doc Martin’s and a moth eaten, grey sweater. What she lacks in trendy clothing she compensates for credibly with gardening prowess. Delightful perennial borders to drool over, even at this time of year they possess oodles of interest .

As I open the gate Bosley trots over, always amiable. Flora is subjected to the once over. He inspects chin-nose-sniff your ear-neck routine. Flora laps it up. He then gives her backside a good inspection. I have to laugh because he has the appearance of Dr Bosley doing rounds at the clinic.

‘Hold still Flora, I need to take your temperature’.

Ms Lockett waves from the kitchen window, opens it and hands me Bosley’s lead. Without delay we’re off. All three of us finally brim full of renewed enthusiasm. I resemble an Alaskan with a pair of straining huskies. ‘Mush! Mush!’

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Deer snicket in hedge.

Once we arrive at the unsealed lane I allow the dogs to run free, only an occasional tractor trundles down here, they are safe to roam. As soon as we arrive at a small natural woodland they push through the deer snickets in the hedge to gambol around in the tangle of ferns, leaf litter and broken branches. If I were to go in there and run around with my head a couple of feet off the ground my eyes would be gouged from their sockets in minutes. Imagine catching yourself on barbed wire.

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Cattle grid.

The dogs randomly explore the area until we encounter a cattle grid where Boz takes over. He finds a squeeze between the brambles and gate post then surges away at greyhound speed.  Flora gets some help from me to cross the grid before chasing after him furiously.

Content that they are happy exploring the shoreline I negotiate the frozen ground with intense concentration . Usually soft and easy walking, the abysmal cold has created a treacherous icy surface under my vibram boots. I have to bunch my toes up, as if that will prevent me tumbling . From a distance I must resemble a drunk after a couple of Special Brews.

Ahead a heron lifts up into the air, it’s ultra smooth wing beats a joy to behold. I pause, motionless to absorb the chilly ambiance. I watch contentedly, the dogs away in the distance, occasionally dipping out of sight as they negotiate the muddy channels.

I listen, the air placid, a fragment of intense calm. Trance inducing moments pass, a raven croaks high up on the crag to return me from my meditation. An odd rushing noise is upon me that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, a flock of estuary birds zoom overhead, low enough to make me duck down. Distant curlews call as they rise into the air and adjust their feeding station.

Bos with stick

Boz – ready to play.

‘Yap, yap.’ ‘OOff’, the dogs are digging in the salty mud like possessed demons.

Unadulterated joy to watch them play together. I recall holding similar emotions when my children were small, they would come down here and play for hours in the warm weather. A microcosm filled with fantasy and innocence.

I hop, slide and splatter my way carefully, moving closer to the dogs. They have been out on the hard, silty mud for some time. For no reason in particular I call them to me, one sharp ‘shhhwheet’ and Flora pricks her ears, looks for me and kerlonks a direct line in my direction, she skilfully negotiates the ditches and half frozen brackish puddles. Panting happily she anchors up with scratchy skids, eyes on fire – isn’t it amazing how precious delight in the eye of any creature is hugely uplifting.

Bosley dallies a while, adding some finishing touches to the hole they were digging. Satisfied, he tosses his head and sets off toward us in similar cavalier fashion. He doesn’t hesitate at a large ditch, takes a preposterous flying leap and disappears. Imagine Scooby Doo skydiving. Ears up in the air and legs splayed. Muddy waters splash upward, the eagle has landed.

In no time at all Boz hauls himself up this side of the slimy ditch. It’s obvious that he’s struggling with the slope, front paws dug into the turf, hind legs flailing to make a purchase. His determination wins the day, he gallops over the intervening ground, enthusiasm undiminished. He rocks up, plastered head to tail-tip in mud, chocolate sauce with hints of black treacle. I have to keep backing away, arms in the air to avoid being covered in the atrocious mess. He thinks I am playing so launches himself at me. I jump to one side, my feet crush through the thin icy surface of another puddle and I slip to the deck. Boz jumps on top of me, literally laughing into my face, paws pounding on my jacket.

I roll onto my side in an attempt to push myself out of the muck. Both dogs now hoot like impudent teenagers and bounce around me, a chaotic scene.

It’s futile, but I shout. ‘Stop Bosley. Gerrof me!’ For further effect I add. ‘Flora, where are your brains girl? I am a wizened old man, freakin’ well let me get up!’

Urggh. Icy water has seeped over a boot top and filled one boot, my mittens are soaked through, without overtrousers my jeans are saggy bags of stinking mud, even my hair is satched and matted with gunk. ‘Bosley you are an absolute monster!’

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Flooded shoreline at Humphrey Head. Perfect playground for dogs.

Thankfully I carry my phone in a dry inside pocket. I manage to get a call through to a friend who drives a 4WD work vehicle. He doesn’t hesitate to come down to the shore and pick us up.

As we wait near the end of the lane I pull the dogs to me, sit with knees bent, one dog under each arm, tucked in and keeping me warm. Our body heat is creating a cloud of steam in the chilly air. I have treats for the dogs and a chocolate bar for myself, small comfort.

I love it when dogs sit like this. They are content enough, Bosley gives my cheek a very warm choppy nudge that smells of doggie treat as if to say. ‘It’ll be reet mate. You did your best.’

Bosley keeping warm.

When Mark arrives we tumble into the cabin. He has the heater turned up full blast and a flask of piping hot coffee. Oh my, what a luxury. Bosley has been wearing his jacket all the time and it now has to come off. Mark is barely able to drive as he chortles at my demise. Bosley’s dog  jacket is a filthy mess. Can’t imagine what I am going to say to Ms Lockett.

Winter is an endurance test, but moments like this can help to lighten the load.

Have to thank Ms Lockett for lending us Bosley. We had a fabulous time 🙂

New Boots for Humphrey

Flora must be chasing an imaginary rabbit. She twists and lollops, nose to the frosty ground, ears pyoing randomly, jack-in-a-box puppets as she scoots around the muddy saltwater pools.

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Karrimor KSB Event, a wonderful general purpose walking boot.

Winter is being perverse today, it has provided glorious sunshine with sub-zero temperatures. Whenever the ground is frozen solid we are unable to earn a crust from meaningful contract gardening. After dawdling away a few hours keeping warm in front of the fire I decide to take Flora for a walk, down to Humphrey Head. Primary reason – test out my new walking boots.

The boots have been sitting in the original box for almost six months. Hillwalking used to be my lifeblood, but I abandoned regular distance walking when my last pair of boots began leaking at the instep. It’s time to return to the fray.

To add a twist I decide to use my camera to capture the walk through the eyes of Flora. She views things from a completely different layer to me.

We drive the van to the end of the lane and park up. Flora bursts out and gallops around whilst I fit my new boots. The air has an arctic intensity, so my mitten/fingerless gloves are going to be vital as I operate the camera.

Best policy is carefully watch what Flora does, then follow in her pawprints and photograph the places she visits. Clearly this isn’t going to be easy, she moves rapidly from one tuft of grass to another, stopping briefly to sniff then bobble off to something else.

She is fascinated by the pools of water, rushes and leaps with great agility. Her tongue is already flapping, more grin than fatigue.

Flora

Flora at full pelt.

Instantly I realise that I can’t access most  places she has visited, the ground is a treacherous mix of ice and brackish saltwater, the ice breaks easily under my weight, sloppy mud is ankle deep.

There are no sheep on the shoreline today and no other walkers so I decide to let her run free. Still she comes back frequently seeking a little reassurance. Every time she comes back she touches me slightly, often with her nose, occasionally a simple flick of the tail which patters on my legs.

I stop constantly to photograph. Flora lobs up, eyes glittering with delight, front end and shoulders dip to the ground, rear up in the air. She wants to play, we always play.

All doglovers understand this stance, it says.

‘Stick…get me a stick.’

Her tail wags and quivers rapidly, held high in the air. She bounces on both paws at the same time, issuing gentle ‘uff’ ‘uff’ noises.

I look at her with a degree of sympathy. She is confused by this lethargic start to proceedings. Usually I have my wellies on and we both gallivant over the springy turf, jumping across the small ponds until we reach the shoreline where she opens up and stretches her legs. She runs in giant circles depending on where the watermark is. When the tide is well out she will run for a hundred yards, turn like she has suddenly seen the devil and race back full pelt. Where do they gather such energy?

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We walk away from the soggy shore toward the lane and encounter the first obstacle. Probably an 8 on the doggie scale of difficulty. A cattlegrid. This one is tricky because it also has brambles fully up to the edges of the grid. I observe as she ponders the situation. She looks at me, a glob of slobber flippers off the end of her tongue onto my sleeve.

She looks at me twice, gathers herself in the lunge mode, but decides it is too far. Second choice she puts a paw on the first couple of slats, doesn’t like it at all. I am about to help when I imagine she says.

‘Stuff this messing around,’ and leaps up onto the wall beside the cattle grid then with one more bound is on the other side. She doesn’t stop to take applause, just continues with her adventure.

A little way down the lane she disappears off to the right through a hole in the hedging. I see her mooching around in the small wood. She darts out again through another hole, does a quick 360 and whips back in via the next small tunnel. Clearly she is entertained.

Next a kissing gate which has a high degree of doggie difficulty. In fact this is a 10. She knows what this type of gate involves so waits for me to open it. Through the gate she hurtles up the hill.

My boots are not giving me any problem. I have always found that ill fitting boots only take a mile or two before nagging at the foot. These feel like a pair of slippers, a second skin.

We reach a wind tilted hawthorn, I have to put Flora on the lead, there are sheep in the next field. She doesn’t complain, still able to travel a good sniffing distance. Now she is closer I scrutinise what she finds interesting. To my palette it is disgusting, she seeks out and sniffs at pooh, sheep droppings, old cow pats and rabbit droppings. Don’t you dare pick any up! Urk.

Unfortunately we have to make a swift return to the van. The incoming tide is looking very full today. It bothers me that the van may end up in the sea, so we walk back. Flora stops her play mode and begins to walk in step with me. I wonder what she is thinking at this stage. She doesn’t know why I have turned back peremptorily.

Back at the van she skips up onto the passenger seat whilst I sort my boots out. Sighs,  curls up on the double seat, adjusts her chops a couple of times and promptly hits the snooze button.

Tomorrow is forecast even colder, so I will be going back earlier in the day to get right over the top of Humphrey Head to rest in the sun on a sheltered rocky beach as the tide comes around the headland.

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Humphrey Head on the north shore of Morecambe Bay.

Capturing the world through the eyes of a dog is pretty dang difficult. Flora is so smart that she could probably take the photos herself.

Bound Over by a Lawyer Vine

My immediate thoughts when I hear the word ‘jungle’ are Tarzan and Jane. My mind sees dense thickets of vegetation with creatures lurking in the foliage, twigs snapping, gaudy macaws screeching in the trees and huge pythons slithering away then plopping into murky water. I would have to say my jungle mind is pretty uncomfortable and doesn’t sit easily inside my head.

Leonie and I are eating a meagre breakfast beside our beach camp at Turtle Cove. The last of the dry twigs are burning quietly and the billy is about to boil. I lean across and dip my fingers into the loose tea container, collect a good pinch and toss it into the now roiling water. I gaze on, my arms around my knees as the tea leaves bounce maniacally, after a few moments I put a cloth over my hand, take the curved handle of the billy and swing it.

Swinging a billy is essential to create the perfect brew, something I learnt from people on Green Island when we had barbeques on the beach. You need a degree of self confidence to swing a billy. Grabbing the metal handle that is in the fire requires an act of faith only bettered by a South Seas Firewalker. Once hold of the handle it has to be swiftly lifted out of the fire and allowed to hang in the fingers. The can is gently swung in ever increasing arcs until it reaches a point where the water would tip out if stationary. The arc then has to be continued right up and over the top. After a few complete revolutions the billy can is slowed down and put on the ground. Bizarre thing to do, but that is how the bushmen did it, and I do it still. Once on the ground a spoon is used to tap the side of the billy which causes all of the tea leaves to settle to the bottom, the piping hot tea is poured out and quaffed instantly. I have never tasted better tea, Tetleys included, and I am a big fan of Tetleys round tea bags! Good bushmen carry their billy  attached to their swag and will take it to the grave.

The following is undoubtedly familiar to many. I remember singing this to a collection of Sherpa’s as we headed to Annapurna Sanctuary, it didn’t take them long to catch on to the chorus and they gleefully belted it out. Needless to say, one of my favourite drinking songs and sung at every camp in Australia.

Waltzing Matilda

OH! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag—
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water-hole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee;
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!”

Down came the Squatter a-riding his thorough-bred;
Down came Policemen—one, two, and three.
”Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

But the swagman, he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Nourished and packed we take our bikes across Captain Cook Highway and a short distance into the jungle, find some rocks and hide our bikes. From a distance the jungle appears to be impenetrable.  Jungle in Northern Queensland is tropical rainforest. One dictionary definition of jungle offers:- ‘land overgrown with tangled vegetation containing the dwelling place of wild beasts’

Wild beasts! Hmm. Like I said earlier, these thoughts don’t sit comfortably within my head.

The stream that we identified on the map isn’t anywhere as big as I had expected. As we are still only a few hundred yards from the sea I thought it would have deep pools and rushing water. In fact it is a gently tumbling brook with lots of moss and slippery stones.

I shoulder the day-bag and off we go, both wearing T-shirts, shorts and Dunlop Volleys. Walking in Australia often involves sticking to the stream beds and rivers as the bush, unless it has a track, can become incredibly tangled and practically impossible to negotiate. The stream beds of course are more open, with the added bonus of cool water.

We slowly pick our way up the stream. At first I hop from rock to mud, to rock. to gravel, hang on to a tree, swing around it and endeavour to keep my feet dry. Leonie, who is much less fussy, quickly steps into the water and starts to chuckle at my attempts to stay dry.

‘You soft Pommie bar steward. Get in the bladdy water and let’s get a move on.’

Leaning into a great buttress of a tree I look over my shoulder. ‘In the Motherland we are far more cultured and take great delight in using our dexterity. We are the original and authentic explorers, so don’t try to tell me how I should tackle this adventure. OK!’

I step over the buttress, slip in the soft mud, then skitter a hapless shuffle as I slide down the short slope into the water.

Leonie is beside herself, great honking laughter wowses through the forest. Her eyes roll back as she shucks her shoulders and splashes on up the stream, leaving me to consider how pleasant it is in the water once the initial shock has cooled my feet.

The rainforest soon opens up a little and it surprises me that the understorey isn’t as tangled as I expected. We stop frequently to natter about our new surroundings, unable to identify most of the plants and trees. It is clear that the tree tops are way above our heads and the lower branches have larger leaves, presumably this is so that they will catch more of the light.

Mosses of different greens cover the fallen tree trunks, the forest floor is home to old fallen leaves, rotten branches and lots of unidentifiable debris. Each time we stop I scratch around in the litter and notice plenty of insects, ants, some snails and other bugs. If we stay in one place for more than a few minutes corpulent mosquitoes appear and start pestering us. It is hot in the rainforest but there is seldom any open area so direct sunlight isn’t prevalent.

For some time the terrain has steepened, so after an hour we rest in the splayed butress roots of a large tree. We have brought insect repellent with us and decided to spray ourselves so that we can enjoy a snack. We spray our arms and legs, then some on our hands to rub onto our faces. After snacking on the usual scroggin mix and sipping from a flask of cold tea we sit peacefully and look around.

Now that we are quiet we become more aware of the birdlife. Mostly it is small birds that flit too quickly for us to identify. The occasional flash of brilliant blue, red or yellow alerts us to the presence of a bird, but they are frequently gone before we can pinpoint one. Eventually a tiny bird comes closer, the metallic blue on it body and tail is so striking. Later to learn that this is a Fairy Wren, so pretty.

We hear some movement higher and behind the tree, something large is definitely coming. My fears of the jungle rise up and my heart starts a flutter patter routine. The noisy movement stops, a moment later it starts again and we recognise a couple of small wallabies moving around. As they come into our line of sight they rapidly spot us and bound away up the slope, making an incredible din as they go.

Scuttling noises now alert us nearby, a lizard with jerky movements is moving across the forest floor a few feet away. Thinking that I can easily outpace a lizard I jump up and set off toward the lizard. In a flash it is gone, waddling comically over to a tree then disappearing into the undergrowth of ferns and mosses like an actor leaving the stage through a curtain.

This is so exciting. However, now that I have moved it is pointless sitting still. I will have disturbed anything else in the neighbourhood. We decide to walk on up the increasingly steep slope slightly away from the stream, it looks like easier going, more open ground. We try to step carefully to create little noise but we are inexperienced and crunch and crack our way onward, surely disturbing all the potential cassowary sightings. We come to a large rocky outcrop with denser shrubby growth at the base. I figure that we can stick close to the base of the cliff and scramble up and around any obstacles to see if we can find a way past to higher ground.

I push my way through various hanging branches, hold them back as much as possible for Leonie to get through. At one point we find a liana vine hanging in a great curve close to the ground. It is so big that we can sit in it like a swing (Tarzan and Jane territory). After a short distance it becomes clear that we aren’t making a lot of progress so I decide to try and head out of the thickets for the more open ground and get back to the stream to again try our luck there.

As I push through some cobwebby vegetation I realise that my T-shirt is hooked up on a vine similar to a rambling rose. Leonie is cursing because she is having the same problem. The miserable thorns are digging into my body through my T-shirt, and as I try to lift them off carefully they stick into my arm and scratch my legs.

‘Let’s just catch our breath a moment Leonie. We seem to be making matters a heck of a lot worse by fighting this triffid. Perhaps we should reverse a bit?’

‘You have my sarong in the bag, see if you can get it out. I will cover myself up more and try to force a way back to where we came from.’

With a great deal of difficulty I remove my pack and fish out the sarong. Leonie is able to push it onto the vine to her left and hold it far enough away to reverse out of the thicket. Once there she tries to hold some of the trailing devils out of my way but I am well and truly enmeshed in the pain zone. I reach over for the sarong which I wrap around my left arm, hold the backpack in front of me with my right hand and push using it like a battering ram.

‘Oh Jeez. That hurts….yeeeeow!’ I can feel the spikes ripping into my scalp but I am beyond caring and just push through the last few feet.

Leonie looks at me with a grim smile. She takes her tattered sarong and uses it to dab at the numerous scratches and rips on me. Phew this has turned into one heck of a painful weekend. Bluebottle stings yesterday, mossies like warplanes during the night and now the pinnacle of misery a Lawyer Vine attack.

Once back at the stream I strip off to wash myself down in the cool water. It does feel good and helps to soothe things. I sit in the stream naked apart from my trainers, and that feels even better, I never sat naked in a stream before. Starting to feel giddy I lay down in the water just below a small waterfall and let it slosh all over me, the clatter on my head is brilliant.

Meanwhile Leonie has rinsed out the sarong which we use as a mop, dress ourselves and quickly get back down to the bikes. Despite the pain it was a wonderful experience to be in that beautifully natural world for a  short time. I could never live in that environment, but for a brief period I felt part of it.

We pack our bikes and cycle back down the road, hoping to cover the 30 miles back to Cairns before dark, we have no lights on the bikes.

At Ellis Beach we are tempted by the food and drink counters where we stop to fill up on something tasty.

I go up to the juice bar and Leonie moans. ‘Oh my God Johnno, you must have piles or something. There is a humongous patch of blood on the back of your shorts.’

Blood? The vines were not that serious, just loads of scratches that stopped bleeding after I had bathed in the stream. I put my hand down to my backside and there really is a lot of fresh blood. I nip into the nearby toilets. Pulling my shorts off I realise there is something on my behind. I shout for Leonie who comes into the Gents and starts to laugh. ‘What the heck is it Leonie?’

‘Leeches Johnno. Leeches. You soft skinned Pommie.’

The silky warm water caresses my legs then hisses back down the slope.

This tropical soup that passes for the Coral Sea is fed by brown sludge from the rain swollen rivers of North Queensland. It is penned in against the coastline by the Great Barrier Reef, the ruddy brown colour seems out of place, surely you would expect crystal clear water, tropical fish and vibrant coral.

I half raise myself onto my elbows and narrow my eyes against the dreadful thrumming headache and glare of the powerful sun. After drinking far too much Stone’s Ginger Wine, and some gasping bilge that passed for rum, I am suffering as the heat intensifies, my throat is parched. My mouth feels as if somebody has ripped out my tongue and replaced it with a bath sponge. Why do I drink so much? Leonie is clearly suffering equally but lights up her first ciggie of the day.

‘How can you do that?’ I hear myself croak. My voice resonates inexplicably from my sinuses.

She coughs, winces and turns her head to gaze over the seething chocolate water. Another smooth wave cruises up to the slope, smushes down into the sand then washes froth up to her toes. ‘Because Johnno, I am an Australian and my mother’s milk was blended with alcohol. You, on the other hand, are a soft Pommie bar steward raised on milk from herds of fat, docile Jersey cows.’

Nonchalantly flicking the ash away from her knee, she draws hard, plumes the smoke in my direction and adds. ‘In other words, toughen up your act or you will be getting on the next boat back to the Motherland. Aussies just cope better. What’s more.’ Pausing for effect.’We own the Ashes.’ Leonie knows how much I hate being called a Pommie, and loves it when I am tormented by the Aussies about our supposedly inferior cricketing nation. They think they own the ashes, those precious burnt bails.

I flop back onto the sand, exhausted and incapable of any meaningful debate.

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Sit Up And Beg bicycle. Lovely bike full of character.

We had ridden hard the previous afternoon to get to Turtle Cove before sunset. Our vintage sit-up-and-beg bikes held up well. I had been cleaning and oiling them, pumping up the tires and studied the map carefully. Turtle Cove was about 30 miles from Cairns and seemed to be perfect for our expedition, we craved a wilderness experience. From what I could deduce Turtle Cove had no houses, was miles from anywhere, had rocks on the beach and a stream flowing out of the jungle that looked to be pristine. Perfect location.

Once we set off from Cairns we quickly established a rhythm. The old bikes only had 3 gears, crumbling brakes and tattered saddles that nipped at the nether regions, but we were full of determination. Our previous ‘best’, Ellis Beach, was left behind, on we rode into virgin territory. We became possessed with a metallic tang of anticipation for our trip.

I found myself mumbling, ‘Appreciate it all, don’t miss a thing. Pedal, look, pedal, look. Appreciate it all, don’t miss a thing.’ The road surface was kind with only slight rise and fall, we began to power on, both locked into our own world where we filched through private thoughts.

We did stop once to grab a couple of cold drinks from a touristy stall. Australia is a great place for healthy food and drinks. We both had freshly squeezed fruit smoothies and a handful of our home-made ‘scroggin’ mix.

Imagine our delight when we reached Turtle Cove. Nobody there, nothing on the beach except a few pieces of bleached flotsam. A beautiful stretch of natural undisturbed paradise. We both quietly dismounted, dropped the bikes beside the road and made our way to the sand. No path led down so we had to push through some scrub. The sand was fine and deep, we tossed off our trainers and luxuriated in the cool texture as it accepted our feet. At the water’s edge we simply stood with the water washing up to our knees, grinning like two fools. Turtle Cove, our Paradise Beach.

We brought our bikes down, found a spot to camp, collected wood for a fire before night fell and organised ourselves to enjoy the treats brought with us. After boiling a billie and eating our supper we cracked open the grog. We slowly drank the bottle of Stone’s Ginger Wine, it made us euphoric, sitting in a tropical night under a vast sky that seemed to envelop us. It was so close that we could reach up and touch the stars. We laughed and talked endlessly, the conversation becoming totally forgettable after the bottle of rum had been drained. We washed the wine bottle in the surf, wrote a message with a promise to pay the finder a pot of gold, capped it and tossed it far out onto the sea. We hoped that somebody would find it on an icy cold day in Alaska, open it and smell the beauty of this tropical night.

The new day was progressing and I wanted to make the most of it.

‘Leonie. I need to get a brew going. It would be good to eat something to line my gut too.’

‘Ok Johnnyboy. Stoke up the fire, I have to visit the ladie’s room.’

I manage to pick myself up, distinctly queasy I find some more wood to resurrect the fire. Good fires always relight the following day without much fuss. Sinking to my knees I break the twigs and arrange them in the embers. Before long tiny streamers of smoke rise and I introduce large twigs, confident that the fire will burst open soon enough. Gathering the empty billy I move across the road and dabble in the small pools of the stream. I splash the cool water onto my face, it feels good. In my delicate state I stop frequently to mull over vacant thoughts, content to let my eyes see without thinking too much. The water is clear yet full of life, fascinating. Eventually I fill the billy and head back.

It irks me as I realise that I forgot to pack any medication. So we have no painkillers to help quell the headache. I pride myself on being organised, this is a silly oversight.

Leonie is arranging things for our lunch. She is a vegetarian and has to put a great deal of thought into food to make it tasty. She had brought tabouli, falaffel, a hard goat’s cheese, chutney, avacados, lots of salad and a handful of fresh herbs. She creates sandwich fills for pitta bread. We take our food over to the rocks, hop out to the larger ones in the water and enjoy our meal. After several doses of tea we are ready to crack on with our adventure.

We intend to follow the stream up into the jungle. We know there is no path, and that is the best part, a proper adventure, to go where no man has gone before! Well it will feel like that to us.

‘I am going for a dip before we set off. It will freshen me up a bit more.’

I rush down to the water and dive in. It feels great, I am reluctant to open my eyes under water because of the murk, so swim with my eyes tightly closed and surface when my breath starts to run out. It isn’t very deep because I can feel the sand under my feet as I kick. I stand up, the water to my waist, flick the water out of my hair and draw my palms over my face to sweep away the saltwater. What feels like a blob of sticky jello is in my hair so I try to flick it off, then push my hand into the water to rinse it away. With a sharp intake of breath I notice that I am standing in the middle of a ‘flock’ of bluebottles and the jello is actually a tentacle. I begin to feel the stinging in my fingers and on the back of my hand. Oooops!

‘Don’t come in the water Leonie. There are bluebottles all over the place.’ She stands, hands on hips, at the waters edge immobile.

My hand is hurting a little now and I need to get out. ‘Try to find something like vinegar to put on the stings. It isn’t a problem but it is hurting. Isn’t it vinegar that works on these stings?’

She glares at me and runs up to the tent. ‘Get out of there quick before you get stung somwhere else that might hurt your paler parts of your body a lot more than a twinge on your hand.’

I look around and see that I am more or less on the edge of the ‘flock’. Picking my way carefully I go back to the beach where Leonie has a small tube of Sting Relief. The jello has gone but there are angry looking welts and an emerging rash around the back of my hand and inbetween some fingers. She smears plenty of the cream on my skin, there is almost instant relief.

‘There you go Johnnyboy, you owe me another one! Lucky that I though to bring a first aid kit.’

I mutter grudgingly. ‘Yeah yeah, you Aussies are super stars. Only problem with this place is the dangerous wildlife, it looks very pretty but packs a heck of a punch. Typical Aussie.’

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Next issue: Up the Jungle

Can we ever know when the moment is ripe and we are about to embark on something epic?

Perhaps you have a dream that you feel can become reality. More often than not it will remain a lovely dream. From time to time we all set out with determination to achieve something, take a few steps before other issues arise and deflect us from our goal. The future for everyone will remain a mystery, no matter how carefully we prepare there can be no certainty of the outcome.

Throughout my life things seem to have just ‘happened’. I firmly believe that you should follow your heart and the future will take care of itself, but don’t quote me on that, I am sure there are lots of people who disagree.

Heather and I had been walking in the English Lake District, occasionally reaching the summit of notable hills. There had even been semi-serious banter of walking the Wainwrights. It took me 20 years to ‘do’ the Wainwrights and I  hankered to walk them again with Heather. However most of our walks had been tempered by Heather’s fear of heights, vertigo seemed to grasp at her randomly, we frequently aborted the more difficult sections. Sometimes it  bamboozled me how the attacks developed. Crossing a stream via stepping stones could generate an anxiety attack, once the seed was set her mind could interpret minor green slopes as the North Face of the Eiger, we would turn back. She was fit and accustomed to walking, but only at low levels. Heather has something in bucket loads, determination, she insisted that we continue to walk regularly and conquer the wobbly demon.

Hillwalking, mountaineering and rockclimbing have always been my passion. Memorable days on the hills continue to live as jewels in my mind, I so wanted Heather to experience something similar. Getting a natural ‘high’ on a mountain, for me, is one of life’s essentials. Most of the time I would walk solo, quickly getting into the flow of a walk. As the last gate to the fell closed another less tangible gate would open up in my head. My eyes would scan the path ahead, then the slopes and the skies. I learnt how to look into the distance, how to feel at home in all weathers, and how to become one with my body and the mountain. Every walk was epic for me, it delighted me to use my body and savour every moment, my senses on alert. I learnt how to be sure footed and agile. I learnt how my muscles and tendons functioned under pressure, and learnt how to relax during prolonged periods of strenuous walking. It would be an entirely different challenge to encourage Heather.

I pondered various options, most of them unlikely to improve the situation and decided to add the incentive of completing the Dales Way, an interesting long distance trail approximately 80 miles. I had walked many sections with my children when they were small, so anticipated that Heather should have little difficulty and the sense of achievement would build confidence allowing us to attempt progressively adventurous walks.

The following articles break our walk down into day sections, the majority were completed on a Sunday, occasionally we would walk both Saturday and Sunday. A healthy, moderately fit person can complete this epic and hold down a regular job, but don’t blame me if the bug bites and you feel the need to plough on, once started this walk will draw you in and on.  The whole journey is on footpaths or bridleways avoiding civilisation as far as possible. It will be possible to select a day walk at random or if you feel so inclined attempt to walk the whole journey from beginning to end, be warned, we have covered almost 1,400 miles of continuous linked walking and have a long way to go. I have an end in mind, but all endings are simply the beginning of something else.

Should you decide to attempt any of the walks, please be sure to take adequate food, appropriate clothing and footwear, inform somebody of where you will be walking, when you intend to return, carry a map, compass, whistle, torch and phone. Above all, take your time, this is a journey to be savoured.

If you walk quickly you may catch us up!

Good luck. John

Medronho or Portuguese Bleach

With its cinnamon-red bark the strawberry tree Arbutus unedo makes an attractive garden bush or small tree, it’s seedlings need considerable protection until they are established. Though able to withstand the sea winds of the Irish coast, the tree quickly succumbs to cold northerly and easterly winds.

Named for the similarity of its fruits to the edible garden variety, the strawberry tree is a native to Ireland. However nowadays it rarely grows wild or produces fruit outside of the warmer Mediterranean regions.

The distribution of the strawberry tree is oddly patchy. In the British Isles it grows naturally in western Ireland. It occurs again in western France, and on the Mediterranean coast; but, whereas in Ireland it grows to tree size, in continental Europe it normally develops only into a shrub. One theory is that the strawberry tree has survived mainly in areas left untouched by glaciers in the Ice Age. Within historical times it certainly grew more widely than it does today, and its disappearance may well be accounted for by the fact that it makes a good charcoal and burns well. Its reddish brown wood is hard and close-grained, though liable to splitting, and is used for inlay and marquetry.

Arbutus unedo is generally a short tree, rarely more than 10m (30 ft) in height and often it is no more than a large shrub. This effect is exaggerated by the fact that the branches of the tree tend to grow from near the base of the trunk, often leaning and twisted, giving it a low sprawling appearance.

As well as its dark, waxy evergreen leaves and unusual winter fruits, the strawberry tree has attractive reddish-brown wood. This dark bark peels off in strips quite regularly to reveal brighter wood beneath. The wood burns well as charcoal and the wholesale felling of the tree for this purpose has contributed to its demise.

However birds readily consume the fruits raw and these are especially welcome as the flowering period is between October and December when there is little else on offer in the way of food. It is also assumed that the erratic behaviour of some birds when feeding on the fruits is due to consuming soft fruit that has gone over, giving the birds a natural shot of medronho. The white flowers take about a year to ripen and so there are often blooms and berries on the tree at the same time. This late flowering time, while helpful to birds, is probably one reason why the tree is so rare in the British Isles now – there simply aren’t enough insects to carry out pollination at this time of year.

Medronho is a strong spirit made from distilled berries from the strawberry tree, the fruit itself is a bit bitter but generally doesn’t taste of much. When turned into alcohol though, it produces a fiery spirit. The drink often known as “Aguardente do Medronho” is the cause of many a zig zagging old man on a motorbike! Aguardente – meaning literally Teeth water.

Traditionally homebrewed it can reach up to 84% but the commercial versions which you will be able to buy in the shop are most likely between 40% and 50%, in some of the smaller bars in the Monchique and Silves region, you will see it being poured from a plastic bottle, this is the real stuff not the weakened commercial stuff!

Aquardente is the actual liqueur much like vodka, and Medronho is the fruit that gives it a special flavour. Similar to the strawberry, the Medronho fruit has its seeds on the outside and a soft flesh on the inside, with a small delicate pit in the center. The fruit is small and round, with an orange and deep red colour, biting into the fruit one feels its graininess, but when bitten through it’s soft and delicate center collapses with a mellow meaty sweetness. When ideally ripened, the bumpy exterior turns an almost black in colour, this is when these little strawberry balls are ideal for harvesting and making of Aguardente de Medornho.

Aguardente is normally served as an after dinner drink and is well known as “Um Chierinho”, if asked at a restaurant this is what the server is referring to, and you have the option of having it on the side or directly in your coffee. Aguardente is also a potent drink and not for the timid, but you only live once so give it a go! It’s also a fantastic sipping drink for dry desserts like chocolate salame and morgado, but for a truly “inside” taste of the Algarve try Aquardente de Medronho with a good “Figo Cheio”, a dried fig stuffed with almonds and spices.

Happy Daze

Australia was a jolt to the senses. It is such a massive country, with infinite variety of plant and animal life. What’s more the animal life is seriously peculiar compared to the rest of the world, and the plants are unique. So what plants you know here in England counts for zilch in Oz it really was upside down to me.

After Christmas (on the beach?) We hitch hiked down to Tasmania to organise work picking apples. The jobs were plentiful but the season hadn’t started and there was nothing doing so we hitch hiked back to Sydney.  With funds quickly depleting I just had enough money to get to Cairns and take a flight to Papua New Guinea, then what? No clue. Expecting a plan to form we hitched to Brisbane and took a train to Cairns, it was a 5 day journey because the ‘wet’ had started and the train had to wait at Mackay for the flooding to subside.

Eventually we arrived at Cairns and decided to spend the last of our play money on a day trip to Green Island. The heat and humidity in the tropics was unbearable, so a day on the water was welcome. Once the catamaran docked we trundled down the long pier toward the beach. At the end of the pier was a chalkboard advertising 3 jobs, Barmaid, Kitchen Porter and Receptionist.  With barely a second thought we asked about the jobs and were directed to the managers office. Duane was sitting in a pair of swimmers with a tinnie in his hand, feet up on the table. The briefest of conversations followed and we had ourselves jobs! Mad but true.

Do I look like a fish?

Green Island was like nothing I had experienced before. A true coral atoll, and only one hotel with a few permanent staff. Everyone else either visited for the day or were guests at the hotel. For 3 months I worked two shifts and in between snorkelled or walked into the jungly stuff, there was nothing else to do. I borrowed a couple of books one to identify the fish and coral. Another to identify the birdlife, and another to understand the flora. The first and easily identifiable shrub was the frangipani. With it’s creamy flowers and intoxicating scent. It was such a learning curve, nothing was within my experience and it was like being Robinson Crusoe to sit on a liana vine, strong enough to swing on, to look at cocoanuts growing freely, to have such unusual birds all around. The flora really gripped me because it was there to be touched, smelt and admired. Only one other person who worked on the island seemed at all interested in the flora. An old guy who was the caretaker/groundsman. He flicked a switch around the cabins occasionally or cut back things that were a nuisance for the guests. His crowning glory were the cocoanuts. He collected cocoanuts that were washed up on the beach and put them in mushy pea tins with the lid cut off and a couple of nail holes punched in the bottom. They sprouted quickly in the white sand and he tended them, basically this involved throwing a bit of freshwater on them each day. He had a mini forest of cocoanuts growing in tins. When they were a reasonable size he would put them at the end of the jetty and sell them to the tourists.

Idyllic as this life seemed it became ultra boring. Apart from drinking at the bar there wasn’t anywhere to go and most of the staff didn’t want to go anywhere, getting hammered seemed to be the apex of their life. After 3 months we couldn’t hack it any longer and moved back to the mainland, but the hook had been set and we lapped up life in Cairns. Released prisoners comes to mind, but the money earned on the island allowed us to rent a stilted house.

Without restriction on our movement we covered every part of the town gawping and babbling about every new plant or bird . We sometimes had to go to the library to discover the identity of things, or ask the Aborigine family who lived in one third of our house. We nailed them all over time and it began to feel like home.

No matter where we went in Cairns the frangipanis blossomed and thrived. We had a frangipani bush by the front steps, frangipanis were on the roundabouts, in every garden and epitomised North Queensland for me. I can still smell them and feel them in my mind. Potent stuff.