Thursday, 27 October 2011
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Second Chance Tortoise
Wild Life 12
They abided in an old wooden cabin, living and loving a perfect hippy idyll in the last fading light of a tumultuous millennium. Their small two room shack nestled on a bend in the upper reaches of a pristine watercourse - a spring-fed stream flowing through a verdant forested gorge that had guided and guarded its winding course for millions of years. The crystal water brimmed with fish, tortoise and platypus and the hills abounded with rare and endangered marsupials – alongside an unbound menagerie of unclassified, unknown and unheralded species of manifest spirits.
One candlelit night as they lay abed in their little loft at the end of the world, she asked him how he’d discovered his remote little niche in primeval antipodean paradise. While she nestled in the crook of his arm he began reading the story he’d been fitfully penning in the dogeared pages of a water-stained notebook. He read her the tale with a whimsical smile as she picked at his scimitar sideburns and pharaohnoic beard;
“How did I get here? Did I find paradise by simply watching the days go by and letting the water hold me? Did I find this little valley by accident? Apparently not.
I drove past this little nook hidden ’midst all these crannies many times in the 1970s, while visiting further north in the Rainbow Region. The inspiring sights, wondrous climate and uniquely caring and sharing hippies of the land between Byron Bay and Nimbin have been a magnet for many adventurous young people over the decaying decades, and I was no exception…”
“Oh yes you are,” she assured him while her copious curls spilled across his bare chest.
“In the southern summer of early 1981 I was lighting a few bands, operating equipment which would later become the nucleus of The Illuminati Lightshow Company. It had proven very difficult to legally register the name; no real reason was ever provided for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have the name ‘Illuminati’, but I objected and made a nuisance of myself until the government’s beurocrats allowed me to register ‘The Illuminati’ instead.
I was aware that my mother had come from northern New South Wales, but as she’d been killed by a medical error while I was in my teens and (as far as I knew) the rest of her family had already passed away, I had little idea of the details of her early life.” Seheal squeezed his bicep and kissed his throat. “While touring through the subtropical northern country with various bands, I’d tune into the passing landscape – the narrow lush green strip between the Great Dividing Range and the Pacific Ocean – and try to get some glimmer, just an inkling of a resonance of the area where my mother had been born and grew up.
It may seem like a naive idea to many, but there was little reason for me to doubt that such clairvoyance – or sheer serendipity – was possible; finding a clue to my mother and her family line even seemed probable, given the level of determination I felt. Against all apparent odds of most mundane materialists’ musings the truth proved possible to discern after all, emerging from unknown caverns of unsung history by a slightly roundabout route...”
“I like it,” she said, distracting him with a swipe of her tongue. “Don’t mind me – go on… mm…” After a long languid kiss he followed her instruction;
“When you run your own lighting company you can choose who to work for – and the musicians have to be pretty good if you’re going to listen to the same songs and sets over and over umpteen repetitive times. One of the groups I’d been lighting was called ‘Magic Pudding’ – a truly huge and interesting band named after a famous Oz children’s story (tales of an endless pudding that never ran out, but often ran away). The band had up to sixteen members, including Claice Pearce (a famous electric viola player) and Greg Sheehan (an equally notable percussionist). They had a woodwind section that included a huge bass clarinet with a brassy horn affixed to its end and their music was indescribably unique and divine.
One stormy wet season the band progressed up the touristy coast and detoured into the hippy hillbilly settlements of the hinterlands, playing in small rural halls and larger theatres in towns which were carefully selected for their high proportion of alternatively minded locals. We met many wonderful people and even a band huge as Magic Pudding was offered many free places to stay by appreciative free-spirited locals.
The tour was dogged by the subtropical rains which La Nina-induced weather systems occasionally bring to easterly Oz. At one point Guy Madigan (the tour’s promoter and a well-known musician in his own right) and I had to leap from the Kombi van – which carried the sound system, lights and projectors and some of the instruments, including an irreplaceable Celtic harp, among other things – and jump into a swollen river.
Floods were closing off many of the towns and villages on our route and Guy had taken the only road leading into the town of Lismore that was still supposedly open.
When we saw lines of cars, vans and utes banked up on either side of a flooded bridge Guy checked his watch; we only had a couple of hours until the gig was due to start, and there was no way to rendezvous with the band – who had arrived in town the night before - than to ford the submerge bridge that spanned the rushing creek. And the show must go on!
‘It’ll be okay,’ Guy said as he prepared to take the Kombi across after questioning some of the stranded travelers while I handed out handbills for the gig. None of the eclectic roadside crowd knew whether the bridge was passable or not, or had anything useful to suggest. ‘Just lean out your window and watch the white line on the side of the road,’ Guy told me as we climbed back into the cabin. ‘If it looks like it’s getting too deep you can give me a yell.’
He entered the water slowly while the other drivers milled about and watched our progress with interest, shouting encouragements or guffawing with derisive laughter. We watched another crowd watching us from the other side of the rushing brown waters; it seemed no-one wanted to investigate the condition of the bridge and had all been waiting for someone else to be the first to try and cross. ‘How is it?’ Guy asked through gritted teeth as we entered the muddy fringe of the stream.
‘Looks okay,’ I yelled over the engine noise, watching the white line submerge and grow dimmer beneath rippling water. ‘Still okay,’ I said as the painted line slowly faded into the murk. As we approached the bridge everything seemed all right and it looked like there’d be no problem at all making it across. But when we reached the place where the middle of the bridge was supposed to be the white line abruptly disappeared, and just as I yelled ‘Stop!’ the Kombi lurched to one side and began to float down the river. The bridge had been washed away.
Guy’s eyes were as wide as mine when we glanced at each other. His hands were wrapped round the steering wheel in a death grip, the stereo was still playing and we were both frozen in our comfortable seats, listening to some folk music from Bolivia while waves splashed and the river thrashed all around us. We were aware that (unlike most other vehicles) Kombi vans had been designed to float, but we had no idea how long the vehicle would remain floodworthy. A small but perfectly formed geyser was erupting through the hole where the clutch pedal passed through the otherwise waterproof floor and the van was gradually filling with water.
Within a few seconds we were slowly spinning round and around in the current, moving downstream at an accelerating rate while we both sat frozen in shocked surprise. After a few seconds the van bobbed out of the main current and wallowed around with a barge-like motion, turned with the flow to aim downstream and slowed from its headlong rush to a walking pace. ‘We’ll have to jump out and try to push it onto the bank!’ Guy yelled over the tumult with a restrained undertone of desperation. My eyes widened as I considered the prospect, but he gave me no time to object. ‘Make sure you shut the door after you’re out!’
‘Now!’ He shouted and reached for his door handle before I could reply.
I turned from his wildly bearded face to stare at the muddy river that was churning a few handspans below the open passenger window. The stream didn’t seem too deep as we bumped along from snag to snag, but I filled my lungs with air before opening the door just in case. I pushed the handle and the door was pulled from my grasp when I breasted the wave that poured into the vehicle as I threw myself into the turbulent creek. The door was instantly slammed shut by the current.
My feet landed in swirling mud at the bottom of a strong undertow as the van slewed around. I was instantly soaked from head to foot by a wave that churned around the boxy vehicle’s body. A couple of swift strokes carried me ahead of the van, which teetered above me as it floated along. I was vaguely aware that Guy was quickly leaping from the driver’s side as his door slammed shut. The water reached my chest and splashed over my face as I struggled to stay afoot, leaning my inconsiderable weight into the oncoming vehicle as it pushed me downstream. My booted feet slid through mud and gravel and the oncoming Kombi refused to stop.
Holding the heavy van back against the far heavier wall of water that was pushing against the far side proved impossible, but I managed to arrest the van’s spin and speed by sliding backward downstream with my shoulder rammed against the side door. In a few moments Guy had swum around to my side and was helping as best he could – he was far stronger and heavier than me - but the situation seemed hopeless. We couldn’t manage to push the Kombi across to the bank – which was pretty steep in any case – and were forced to walk slowly backwards while we visualised the instruments, microphones, lights and sound system slowly sinking into muddy water.
Don’t try this at home!
We were already thirty yards from the bridge and could see a gaggle of car owners pointing and yelling at us when the miracle happened. An old wooden rowboat suddenly appeared upstream, rushing down the torrent towards us. In less than another minute four burly blokes were helping us push the Kombi ashore – and on the townward side of the river, too!
A short while later Guy was handing out beers while I removed spark plugs from the liquid-filled engine. Water had risen to within an inch of the irreplaceable equipment in the back – which was sitting on a couple of wooden pallets – and nothing had been damaged except the carpets.
When Guy kicked the engine over the exhaust looked like it was attached to a washing machine; a torrent of greywater gushed from the pipe for what seemed like ages. But we made it to the gig and managed to set up the stage just in time, after drying off and changing our clothes.
The show must go on!”
“Wow,” Seheal said, and distracted him a little longer before she came up for air and insisted he continue reading to her. “But that still doesn’t tell me how you found this place…” He turned a hastily scribbled page:
“A few days later I was driving another van back down the highway, touring alone to return a twelve seat bus the Magic Pudding had hired from a rental agency a few hundred miles south in the Emerald City. I decided to take a higher, drier inland route called the Summerland Way, grooving to Guy’s eclectic ethnic cassettes while contemplating the undulating scenery.
I was trying to tune into the landscape, searching for a hint that might lead me to the place of my mother’s origins. There was very little traffic and plenty of time to survey the hills and valleys - to concentrate on vibing into the unknown home she’d left to move to the city half a century earlier, way back in the Great Depression.
Keeping my eyes on the horizon ahead to get a feel for the landscape, I drove through scrubby cattle country occasionally enlivened by recovering forests and rare stands of taller uncut trees. I allowed my mind to expand and encompass the undulating skin of the Earth. Rolling hills extended all around me, gradually rising to the Great Dividing Range on the right of the road and sloping down to the vaster Pacific, far beyond the eastern horizon to my left.
My perspective gradually attuned to a 360o view as I flew down the road. Glistening threads of leyline songlines became more and more visible, shaping the land with their patterning flows and guided by its meanderings. Space tells matter where to go, and matter tells space how to curve… The road seemed to follow a far more ancient walking track, carved into and through its ambient course and blackly coated with bitumen, tarring the living clay of the Great Earth Mother and the old stone bones of Father Adam with a modernist simpleton’s oily brush.
A low dark lump on the road just ahead attracted my distracted attention and my foot hit the brake at the last possible moment. The van slewed to one side before I regained control and managed to stop the lumbering behemoth in the centre of the empty highway. I stared into the rear view mirror and hurriedly reversed to see what it was I’d hopefully missed, but couldn’t quite make it out. When I leapt down from the driver’s door I saw a mid-sized tortoise spinning slowly around, trapped on its back on the hot black tar. The elliptical case of the bony reptile came to a stop as I knelt to examine it.
When I turned it over the shell seemed intact. The tortoise blinked at me from a protected recess between its overhanging plates, nictating membranes glistening as they trailed the grey eyelids down and up. The Eastern long-necked tortoise had wrapped its head and long neck sidewise between the layers of its shell to hide from the unexpected threat that came bearing down on it out of the blue. I could see no obvious damage, save for a small hole which had been drilled into the rear flange of the creature’s dark upper carapace.
I’d seen similar holes before. My mother Bonnie had kept identical tortoises as a bush baby child, and had showed me how to care for them when I was a young lad in the Emerald City. Her words came back to me as I stood standing on the side of the endless highway, staring at the small hole; “People put chains through those holes,” she’d told me with mild disapproval, “to stop their pet tortoises from getting away in winter.”
“Does it hurt them?” I’d asked while ‘our’ tortoise’s soft sharp claws kicked at my hand.
“No,” she said, “It’s like cutting hair. They burrow deep underground and their keepers don’t want to lose them. They pull them back through their burrows by their chains in spring.” We never chained ‘our’ tortoises up and every spring we searched surrounding backyards for our revivified reptiles, which would always emerge from the sandy earth in a different place from the previous year. We usually found them before some neighbourhood dog crunched them to death between its jaws (chewing on the shell like a flat round bone) or a car crushed them to pulp on the suburban streets.
I returned to the apparent present and stared into the distance, trying to discern how the tortoise had come to be walking down the highway and puzzle out where it might be headed. There was no sign of any habitation - not even a cultivated field or cow paddock - and we were miles from the nearest water. I looked at the timid yet stalwart little creature, trying to decide what to do. Leaving it to continue plodding down the road didn’t seem a particularly good option.
My inner vision extended past the horizon and I remembered – saw - a place that was full of similar long-necked tortoises – a pristine pool where a hippy friend lived, only a couple of hundred miles south and almost right along my route. This runaway pet provided the perfect excuse to visit Ricco, an amiable fellow always glad to receive and fortify friendly visitors; it also provided me with a reason to visit Cathy, his alluring next door neighbour.
I’d met Ricco (a lanky American with a vivid Chicago accent) through my liaison with Cathy when I’d ended up on her doorstep a few months earlier. I’d had to leap from a ship at a coastal town less than a hundred miles from the place where she lived, jumping to a wharf from a triple masted eighty-foot wooden schooner before it tied up, when landward police and a coast guard patrol boat surrounded the vessel (but that’s another story for another time).
I ensured the tortoise was comfortably ensconced in a box on the passenger seat and occasionally glanced at it while the van trundled south. A couple of hours later I pulled into Cathy’s driveway near the end of a long gravel road; she instantly invited me to stay for the night with a kiss and a hug. Karri, her five year-old daughter, hung from her skirt as she greeted me outside her small wooden shed of a home. The small girl goggled and cooed when I brought the tortoise from the van.
It was still midafternoon and she and Karri were happy to accompany me next door to Ricco’s, only a few hundred yards upstream. Ricco was equally welcoming to me and my reptilian companion, and more than happy to give the escapee a home with the other tortoises in the ancient platypus pool that glittered in front of his little wooden cabin.
First he painted a large white ‘x’ on the tortoise’s back with some leftover enamel paint and we adults shared a few tales and smokes while we watched the paint dry, while Karri tried to feed leaves and berries to the recalcitrant meat-eating tortoise. When the sun began to sink into the jaws of the western mountains we took the creature to meet its new family and watched it dart off among the other tortoises in the crystal clear water - suddenly agile and vigorous as it flew above the colourful smooth rocks which plated the river bottom with a scaly hide of stone.
For the next few years I had good reason to visit the little valley – even after Cathy stopped inviting me into her bed a few months later. Every few months Ricco and I went down to the river to see the tortoise with the cross painted on its back, and we were usually rewarded with a sighting of the elusive critter.
I never thought Ricco would sell the place, but in 1989 I ended up buying the deed to the land from him and moving into his shack – along with all the equipment necessary to continue to publish NEXUS New Times magazine. The turtle was still swimming around, happy as Larry the Lounge Lizard.”
“Is it still there?” Seheal asked. “I don’t think I’ve seen it…”
“’Tis there aright,” the shaman told her. “We’ll see if it wants to be seen on the morrow.”
“So that’s how you found this place,” she said, eyes glittering up at him in the candlelight. “What a great story…”
“Not over yet,” he told her and turned another page.
“Years later, in 1999, I found my long-lost Auntie Dolly – my mother Bonnie’s eldest sister. She was in her early nineties, living in a nursing home on the edge of the nation’s capital. I went to visit her with my five year-old daughter and she was astonished to see me and the niece she didn’t know she had after so very long.
Dolly’s impromptu personalised tales of koalas and possums, kangaroos and cockatoos had first inspired my interest in the bush when I was still in my infancy. I’d lie in her spare bed or in a nook made of huge nested lounge chairs and listen to the stories she invented, while she gave my parents respite from their boisterous boy child and some time alone together.
Dolly had moved away from the Emerald City after my mother died and we’d gradually lost contact. She blamed my father for her sister’s death to the point of irrationality, claiming he must somehow have poisoned her in the hospital as he worked for a major drug company at the time. In truth he was shattered by Bonnie’s death and never remarried.
‘So where are you living?’ Dolly asked from her cot. Breath whistled through the gap where her front tooth had once been. ‘Still in the big smoke?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Moved to the bush at last...’ When I told her the name of the town nearest my rainforest home her wrinkly eyes bugged at me and she covered her surviving yellow teeth with a bony hand. ‘What are you doing there?’ she cried in a strangled voice. “Don’t you know that’s where we came from?’
It transpired that the place where I lived was in the very centre of the view she’d shared with my mother when Bonnie was a young child, back in the 1920s. ‘We’d always be sitting on the verandah and staring out there,’ she said. ‘Back then everyone called it “the gorge country”. I always wanted to go and see what it was like – so did your mother, but we never did...’
Thanks, mum. Thanks, Dolly. And thanks to the totemic tortoise.”
“Is there more?”
“Just a little…”
“I’ve been here for years now, living in this little shack beside the pristine permanent pool. Many things have improved in that time, but the forests, soil and water have been steadily going downhill – often literally, eroding into the rivers and the ocean - stolen from everyone by a few corporations and banks, and the ignorant rednecks who work themselves into early graves on their behalf. I guess many people with too much time on their hands are so unimaginative and boring that they need to fill their days with a quest for imaginary money – at everyone else’s expense.
Byron Bay is now a hideous tourist trap and much of the Rainbow Region is inaccessible to any but the wealthy few. They’re even trying to raise the property values in the hippy haven of Nimbin, by driving out the more colourful locals and any visitor who’s a tiny bit interesting, just as they did in Byron.
But this place where the tortoises swim with the platypuses is as far as you can get from any capital city in Oz - and enjoy abundant water and a great climate all year round. It’s so remote it remains uneconomical for most exploitative types to move here, just as I hoped when I moved here.
This evening fireflies flit outside the window while I write; today I saw kangaroos, wallabies, land mullets (giant black skinks), Wompoo pigeons, rainbow lorikeets, a giant goanna, a red-bellied black snake, a pair of possums, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, an emerald catbird, rosellas, catfish, silver perch, golden bass - and a bevy of eastern long-necked tortoises. As it says in the Desiderata, it’s still a beautiful world. Be happy – and save whatever you can from the Earth rapists and financiers who employ them to destroy the planet.
Life appears to flow on…” He closed the notebook and kissed her brow. She shinnied up to lave his lips with her tongue while her slim silken thigh rode up his torso.
“But what about the loggers?” she breathed into his narrow beard.
A True Story
Images – author’s
For More True Tales of a Wild Life See
Latest – http://centraxis.blogspot.com
For further enlightenment see –
The Her(m)etic Hermit - http://hermetic.blog.com
From The Prince of Centraxis - http://centraxis.blogspot.com
And the rainforest home of the Her(m)etic Hermit – http://hermetic.blog.com