Monday, August 12, 2013

Old Mate

I'd been ripping through the countryside at 110kph for about six hours when I spotted Old Mate striding, eyes down, along the verge. Like the hundred cars before me, I noticed his steady gate, his hessian bags and the personality evident in his hat and rolled right by. I'd travelled five k's before the feeling took hold - Old Mate had a story to tell.

I hacked a U-turn, rode a kilometre past and parked the bike in a siding. I shed my helmet and jacket and picked my way back along the verge towards him. Road trains rattled the scrawny gums with their air wash. I could hear the drivers hesitate on the accelerator as Old Mate came into view around the sweeping bend ahead. A Land Cruiser tooted a wave.

On the ground at my feet, I spotted a bearded dragon. The lizard was frozen and almost invisible on the leaf litter. I took a photo and crouched a little closer, resting my hand on the grey bark and leaves in front of it. The lizard didn't move so I inched closer and tickled it under the chin. It climbed on my fingers and I stood cautiously. The lizard hung there and let me take a few more pictures, unblinking and cool. I wondered if it was injured or 'special needs', but when I'd marvelled and had my photographic fill, I lowered it to the ground and it shot off into the undergrowth like I'd thrown it.

Old Mate regarded me from the shadow of his battered hat. 'G'day.'
'I spotted you as I rode past,' I said. 'You look like you have a story to tell.'
He jutted his chin and I slid into step beside him. We shook hands and he told me his name was John. John had been walking for thirty-five years - Victoria to Queensland and back again, every year. His wife walked with him for the first couple of years. He'd been a banker back then, but realised the job wasn't for him. The first time he walked, it was an action to clear his head and give him the chance to think about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He didn't have any revelations that year, so he just kept walking, Forest Gump style. He's still walking.

He makes enough money for the food he needs selling and trading the things he finds on the roadside. In the eighties it was spanners, now he finds a little change and collects aluminium cans when he's approaching a town. Never takes a lift and has never been on the dole. He doesn't think he'd qualify. Doesn't have an address. Doesn't have a plastic card. Was once a banker now doesn't have a bank account.

Just think about that for a minute, because I had to. Doesn't. Have. A. Bank. Account. That's probably against the law somewhere. In a first world country like Australia, it's like cashing out before the game begins and from at least one angle, a profoundly liberating idea.

You don't need a mortgage or credit card if your home is a sheet of plastic and a tarp, pitched in the shade of a new coolabah every night. If your existence is supremely minimal in a rich nation, you can live off the the side of the road.

'People were worse in the eighties, shouting at me as they drove past. Now, some of the truck drivers who are doing this stretch of road two or three times a week stop and have a chat, give me food and drink. They know I won't take a lift, but they ask anyway.'

 For a minute, I wondered if he'd been injured or was 'special needs', but when I shook his hand again and he bade me happy riding, I realised he'd found something precious on the side of the road - a simple life that pleases him to the core.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Living Wild II

 If I lived in the burbs I could regale you with stories of our neighbour’s parties and the bloke in flat number four who’s learning the bagpipes but I live in the sticks so our closest neighbours are non-human.

It was unseasonably warm last Wednesday and walking home (five hundred metres) from my office, I stopped in the glade to watch a pair of eastern whip birds mucking about. They’re normally fairly timid and a fleeting glimpse is a rare treat, though you can hear their whip-crack call from a kilometre or so away. They have a white throat and a little crest that gives them a kind of startled appearance. The pair in the glade were playing a robust game of follow the leader and when they vanished into the undergrowth, I stepped off towards the barn. My foot rolled on something and I looked down to see a tiger snake pinned under my boot. In the second or so it took to realise what had happened, the snake recoiled and butted my jeans with a closed mouth. I leapt into the air and almost landed on it again before completing the second movement in the ballet known locally as Reptillus Shittus Brickus. There’s a simple song that goes with it: ‘Faaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkk’. Sing along if you know the words …

Once I’d regained my composure, I held my heart and followed the snake into the bush—it was a beautiful glossy sub-adult I hadn’t seen before and an un-striped slaty grey colour. It didn’t escape at speed, giving me time to apologise for standing on its neck. Or its back. Or its tail. Whatever. I said sorry, but I know they’re deaf. Make as much noise as you like in the bush—they can’t hear you. Those sonic snake repellants are as useful as water-based raincoats. They don’t sense the vibrations, either: they’re aware of movement and hypersensitive to the smell/taste of their prey.

Owls, on the other hand, have awesome hearing and even better sight, which had me puzzling the following evening when I found a boobook owl trapped in the old chicken coop. The chickens are long gone (they have their own mobile pen, now), but the rats and mice that used to live off the food scraps and pellets are still camping out in there. Maybe the owl was hunting those? I turned my phone into a torch and could get quite close to the wide-eyed pretty, but it may have been freaking out for a while before I got there. I spoke calmly and offered my forearm as a roost, which it obligingly perched on. With my heart beating in my mouth, I snapped a dodgy picture with my phone before carrying the wildest of wild things into the open. I felt the air from its wings as it powered off into the darkness, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not even a thank you. Ungrateful beast … oh how I love thee …

Living Wild

I’ve lived in the bush for the majority of my life and the thing that appeals to me most about the lifestyle is the surprises. Case in point: I had a training partner this morning, of the avian variety.

I run and sweat a few times a week, normally before dawn when the country is still rolling and farting. The magpies haven’t left their roosts and their chortling is pillow talk. The log trucks are on the move in the valley. I can’t see their lights exactly, just the illuminated trees and fog preceding them. Their rumbling is the only evidence that there wasn’t a zombie apocalypse while we were sleeping.

There was a touch of frost in the valley this morning and the waning quarter of moon did nothing except make the shadows deeper. I stumbled my normal route up the drive then up the hill—a gradually increasing slope, steep enough to be inimitable on a treadmill, but not insurmountable for an amateur like me. I disturbed an animal on the road verge just beyond the spotted gums. I’ve set wild sheep and goats to flight in the same spot and, about a year ago, a small family of fallow deer—a rare and timid sight in this part of the country. There are wallabies and wombats there, too, but the creature I disturbed had mass—a bipedal bulk that, when it stepped from the shadow into the moonlight, was taller than me.

Emu. Well, Fred, to be precise. Jack and Emma, who live at the top of the hill, have been mates with Fred for some time and Liz (their landlord) has peck scars on the top of her head. Emma reckons they were love bites. Liz now wears a bike helmet and carries a broom in Fred’s company.

Fred boomed a greeting and I upped the pace and headed for the opposite verge, giving her as much room as possible but I could hear her nails on the tarmac and turned to see her shadow bobbing towards me up the middle of the road. I remembered that little kid from The Gods Must Be Crazy II, holding a lump of bark above his head to appear bigger to the pack of hunting dogs who were stalking him and I clapped my hands in the air above my head. This seemed to excite Fred and soon she was trotting beside me and booming joyously. I stepped on the gas and a gap opened between me and Fred, but her legs were still pumping and it seemed like no effort at all for her to close that gap. The hill got steeper and steeper and my breathing became ragged and desperate. Finally, I realised Fred could probably run the pants off a kangaroo, and I surrendered to my fate.

‘Morning Fred,’ I said, gently.
Boom boom.
She took a step closer, her head now a looming silhouette with the moon at her back. She surveyed me for what felt like a full minute, and then turned and wandered towards Jack and Emma’s place.
I dragged myself home thinking emus could make a decent wage for themselves as personal trainers, but what would an emu do with cash? Just eat it.