Saturday bushwalk


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It’s been a long time since we’ve had anything that could really be called a bushwalk: plenty of beachwalks with the majesty of the sea to the east, but no walks that concentrated the majesty of trees. To find this pleasure unexpectedly, we returned to the segment of the Dreaming Track we walked along last week, but took different sidetracks.

First through a forest of knobbly trunked banksias,

Then a visit to the splendid forest redgum (Eucalyptus tereticornus) hoping to see it flowering more prolifically than last week. It was budding madly, and there were a few bits of finished flowering. Looking closely at the buds I noticed a tiny dark brown tip which served as a cap and came off neatly, not a disease at all. And not named in any of the eucalyptus naming of parts we discovered when we got home.

Although we followed a different track we finished up at the same place on Coila Lake where we picnicked last week. We settled on the sand and ate smoked oysters, camembert, and beetroot dip as the lake lapped loudly in the fierce wind and a sea eagle rode the air just above our heads.

This area has a lucky recent history. Local council bought a big parcel of coastal land for sewage works, which are there edging a splendid piece of bush with their ripe smell. Once they were established, the remaining land was sold to national parks, and it’s now a part of the long strip that is Eurobodalla National Park. Such is the story told to J by a local woman walking her dog.

Tucked away amongst the eucalypt forest are seven rainforest species, old friends from a rainforest passion some years ago. I made good use of an early night going over and over the list in my mind: cheese tree, fig, mock olive, myrtle, lillipilli, blueberry ash and giant water vine: all part of natural regeneration.

Amongst the bark on the ground were the marks of caterpillar scribbles, mystifying since we don’t usually see this enigmatic scrawl in our part of the world.

While my eyes were seeking out scribbles, they were also collecting brightly coloured leaves in the eucalyptus leaf litter.

By the time we got home the wind was howling and we were glad to retreat inside.

Postcards from the past: Jerash



January, 2001

Friday is my rostered shower day (how I long for a shower!) and also excursion day, this week to Jerash. We are on the road in the mini-bus by 8.30. We stop first at Ajlun Castle, occupying unbelievable steepness, and a rabbit warren inside. The views are stunning, out over red soil, olive trees and rocky landscape to hazy hills. I avoid the rush to souvenir stalls and enjoy a short prowl around inside the ruins.

The main destination is however Jerash, the most complete of the three Roman ruins I’ve encountered, and according to some the most complete outside Italy.

First we visit the hippodrome where one of the archaeologists has been analysing human remains, a pile of bones and traces of lime, maybe victims of the plague. She gives a graphic description of the dangers of chariot racing.

Then we’re let loose on the ruins and I manage to extricate myself from distracting company. The cardo paving is still there and although it’s been disturbed by earthquake the wheel-marks of chariots are visible in the stone, a tangible link with the busyness of this wealthy Roman city, beautifully sited in fertile countryside. The agora is quite small, with a fountain in the middle and spaces behind the columns for shops. I pass a tumble of stones, the ruins of the baths, and the stone dome of an Umayyad mosque.

There are two theatres in good repair, still in use for the Jerash festival where you can experience theatre, orchestral and traditional music, and an arts and craft market. I sit on the stone seats after taking giant strides to reach them.

But I really encounter the grandeur that was Rome at the temple of Artemis, walking up the stairs, flight after flight, and just about reaching the top before the towering columns become visible, then more steps to the sanctuary area.

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For Marie, with thanks for five glorious hours, and years of friendship

I sit in the sun with my friend Marie on her wide deck, looking down over neat paddocks to a line of trees and the creek, as she tells me about the creatures that share her world. A tawny frogmouth regularly perches on the deck railings. Barn owls live in the shed. One year a pair of cranes built a practice nest in a tall eucalypt: the next year they returned “for real” and she watched three chicks as they learnt how to stagger along a branch towards food brought by their parents. When a plover family began to behave strangely she took notice and the parents led her to a post hole where one of the chicks had fallen in. Her partner encountered two kookaburras fighting: when he picked them up he found the beak of one firmly embedded in the other one’s head. An old kangaroo who hangs around the house recently died: his body is down by the creek.

As we talk the horse snorts periodically.

I love visiting Marie. She always has travel stories: this time about her escape from a dictatorial tour guide on a package tour in Cambodia. She eyes off the drivers waiting to waylay tourists; finds one who isn’t aggressive; and books him for the next day to take her by tuk tuk out to the killing fields.

We talk and soak up the sun, and then head out for a walk, driving through the forests of Murramarang National Park, to Durras Beach, where the bush comes down the mountain to the sea. The tide is lowish but coming in, and a flat rock platform stretches out towards a little parcel of an island topped by green. This is sandstone country: we don’t have flat platforms like this further south. We follow a thin track edging the beach until we encounter a kangaroo who seems to be blind and sick. When its companion emerges from the bush we decide to leave the track to them and I bum it down to the sand.

Soon we’re caught up in all the visual delights of the platform: the shiny gleam of rocks; pools catching bits of the sky; rocks neatly packaged in iron-stone; unnaturally natural right angles; neat layers of rock laid down under the sea over who knows how many eons; pock marks, cracks and intrusions; tiny shells, a dead starfish, a wrenched up crinoid and piles of seaweed; swirls of brown and grey and orange and tan; and then the grand finale.

The view down the coast along a string of bulbous bluffs, striped and capped with trees: pleasures for another day when the tide is low.





For my Australian daughter, on her birthday, with love

Saltmarsh is not an ecosystem I’m familiar with, so I welcome the chance for a saltmarsh walk with a group in Bermagui, accompanied by a botanist (Jackie Miles) and the organiser, Bega Valley Council’s natural assets officer (Andrew Morrison).

Quite a large group, as it turns out, and a bit hard to get a handle on new plants, their characteristics and their names, as traffic whooshes past, members of the group chat, and I’m bombarded with new knowledge. I note down the names of books, and determine to fill in gaps with the help of Mr Google.

We explore an area bordered by the golf course and a road. It’s comforting to know that the head greenkeeper is ready to listen to knowledgeable volunteers and support the regeneration of this patch. We’re astonished to learn that it only took a year for saltbush communities to return to an area that had been a dumping ground for truckloads of prunings and other rubbish.

Saltmarsh is visually sparse and quite unexpectedly colourful. It’s bounded by casuarinas and two kinds of mangrove, and the low ground cover is a vivid pink, red and orange, against grey spears of tussocky sea rush (Juncus kraussii). I don’t manage to catch all the names: I have no hooks to hang them on and I often miss half the commentary because I’m busy looking or photographing.

We leave the group, me and my friend Kate, and go for coffee and catch-up by the marina, Gulaga looming as she always does in this neck of the woods; and then for a picnic by the river and more talk. Pelicans glide by, and we finally move on when chainsaws start up, aborting a plan to head further along the northern river bank.

Instead, we walk along a track that skirts an old airfield, the river and more saltmarsh. Here there are information panels for bird and plant life that name names and provide images, filling in the morning’s nomenclature gaps.

All NSW saltmarsh is listed as an endangered ecological community. This matters, because saltmarshes provide a nursery for young mullet, bream and flathead; food and a high-tide refuge for crabs and fish; and, at low tide, a habitat for bats, wallabies, kangaroos and shorebirds (including summer visitors from Alaska and eastern Russia and the Eastern Curlew which is on the critically endangered list),

The South River site has been under repair since 2014, when wetland specialists assessed the damage from vehicles and the waves created by speeding boats. In 2016 erosion control matting was laid down, and since then natural regeneration has taken place on old vehicle tracks.

We walk along the sandy edge of the river, past a flurry of crabs crawling over each other to escape these invaders of their quiet place of grey beauty. Mangroves send up their pneumatophores, and show both their surprising fruits and flowers.

The plants provide a chance to revise names, with the help of the information panel. Here they are again: Austral seablite (Suaeda australis) …

… beaded glasswort or samphire (Sarcocornia quinqueflora)

… a vulnerable species, Narrow leafed Wilsonia (Wilsonia backhousei )

… and native sea lavender (Limonium australe)

If you’d like to enjoy the walk with video commentary and more detail check out the Atlas of life feature


Postcards from the past: Pella finds


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January 2001

The day before my dig experience at Pella began, a couple of things are found with “diagnostic potential”: the side of what was probably a cult stand decorated with a pattern; and a small piece with a Greek inscription. This prepares me for the minuteness of discoveries and knocks on the head any Tutankhamen’s-tomb fantasies I might have had.

My first trench excitement happens as I’m scraping out the pit in XXXIIG. Something the size and shape of a broken paddle pop stick emerges from the dirt. It is in fact shaped bone, polished to a gleam and is worthy of its own plastic bag.

Some days there is a lull for volunteers as the local workmen move piles of dirt. This is a chance to see what is happening elsewhere on the dig. In the next trench they’ve just exposed two loom weights, in a small room which may have been a loom room. In another trench, the lid of an amphora, more complete than any others found on this site so far. One trench is particularly giving: a ceramic horse’s head; a female figurine with poked-hole nipples; a broken but reconstitutable vessel; a piece of faience; a couple of scarabs; an iron knife blade. Abu Khalifa found a tiny blue frit bead – the trench men have eyes like hawks attuned by long practice to notice impossible things as they wield their picks.. In my trench, in my pit, a bowl. These are all designated “plot objects”, up to 100 of them halfway through this dig session.

Sometimes trench work seems pointless, scraping away, thinking I have a pit, only to be disappointed. No treasures for me. The sharp-eyed pickman is the one who finds treasures: a couple of loom-weights, and an almost complete juglet. Eventually I figure out that I’ll be happier if I give myself a goal – this square, self-designated, and now that.

The tedium is broken by a summoning cry: a basalt grinder and a grindstone; half a basalt bowl; and half a basalt ring; a copper alloy pin; and one day a huge piece of column being moved 20 feet down a slight slope by half a dozen men with crowbars, everyone gathering to watch, applauding as it’s angled upright against a baulk.

One day, large shards, emerge from dirt in our trench – a pot, about 900 BC, the time of King Solomon. One of the volunteers unearths it and the dreaded Maggie takes over “Because I want speed, not because I don’t trust you, or because I want honour and glory.” Oh, no.

Another day, as the trench foreman begins wielding his pick he exposes signs of a partially unbroken 12th BC pithos (a large storage container). The design around its neck may have been the imprint of rope. After pottery sort, three of us return to the trench until sunset to retrieve as much as possible: a whole base, bits of rim and handle, and heap of shards as big as my hand. This excavation urgency is to make sure no marauders helped themselves to bits and pieces when the site is unwatched at night.

The sorting and classifying of finds is in the hands of the experts. Each day’s haul is basketed according to materials: flint, groundstone, ceramics, shell and metal. Then it’s assessed and sent off for cataloguing, cleaning, drawing and photographing. Potential museum pieces are identified: good stuff stays in Jordan, but duplicates might end up in the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University.

Sometimes after work I return to the site. I watch the dig draughtsman as he draws the top of a piece of wall to scale, and look around taking in the site of 8000 years of human history. It is peaceful on the hillside in the late afternoon sun, absorbing the feeling of this place of Roman theatres, Byzantine Churches, late Bronze Age and Iron Age temples and administrative buildings, and towering Tell Husn.

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Here’s another version of life on the Pella dig, with excellent photos.

Eurobodalla beaches: around Tuross


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Another glorious winter Sunday, J in search of geological certainties, specifically the identification of gabbro-diorite, I idling along companionably. While he chips at boulders between Coila Lake and the beach with his geological hammer, I walk the edge of the lake, drawing in the mountains in the distance; a pair of plump pied oyster catchers; prickly sand plants, red and green succulents, and thin straps of dried weed; and its slightly mucky edge with a thick outline of foam; . I note a sign pointing to the Dreaming Track and conceive a future walk along the 5 kilometres to Bingie Headland.

Then we head, of course, for more rocks, along the sand bar, which has already taken the print of many feet, avian and human. Coila Lake is an ICOLL (Intermittently Closed and Open Lakes and Lagoons), like many along this coast. It’s astonishing to think that not all that long ago (and I’m not talking geological time) the sea was rushing into the lake and that the monster sandbar has formed again since then.

Shells gleam in heaps, thicker than last week’s scattering on a beach south of here, which I claimed then to be unique.

I sit on a convenient rock, feet dangling, and note the patterns: plaits, circles, square boxes, bubbles, clefts, intrusions. and the blue sea behind..

Tuross is noted for its Norfolk pines, and we walk through a grove of them, past a war memorial and the inevitable challenged lone pine from Gallipoli, that foundation place of an Australian myth. I no longer regard the pines as invaders: pollen analysis identifies their presence in Gondwana rainforest, as it adapted to a drying-out climate.

We descend onto the rocks of Plantation Beach, through grass and along sandy pathways and look down the coast to the pine trees of Potato Point, Gulaga lounging on the horizon. The rocks here, whatever they’re made of, have straight lines of pinkish rhyolite striping through, straight and parallel. We have been preceded by a professional geologist, David Blake who died in a cycling accident after a stellar career investigating rocks in Iceland, Canada, Papua New Guinea, and central and northern Australia. His memorial plaque is accompanied by a ten cent piece, a geologist’s way of identifying scale.

Then it’s back to Coila Lake, a bit further round the shoreline, where you can look towards the sandbar where this morning’s adventure began.

Postcards from the past: In the trenches at Pella


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January, 2001

My first job in the trenches is to knock down a Hellenistic wall using a pick. I chip away at fill to level off behind a string-line while large stones topple around my feet. Then I clear them away. After lunch I trowel out foundation fill, mainly pottery shards, but also a tiny piece of oxidised copper, and some minute pieces of flint. For the last 20 minutes I continue destroying the wall, keeping it cleanly vertical with a plum-bob.

I gradually learn that archaeology is another name for destruction. I bash away at a wall with a monkoosh and then clean up the mess I make with a hand shovel and a mustereen. I expose and smooth a silky grey surface: Electra demolishes it.

I become enamoured of my monster pit. There my job is clear: to delineate and excavate. It’s my pit, my familiar place, where I feel competent. After a Friday trip to Umm Qais I whizz back down to the dig site to look at it.

I’m not so competent when it comes to baulk-cleaning, where I have to be very sure nothing tumbles down to contaminate meticulous layering. I know I’m not good at this, so when Stephen yells “Straighten it up. It’s as round as a whore’s bum” I’m amused rather than affronted.

Sometimes I am snappy and tearful: I can’t manage the plum-bob; I crack the back of my fingers and make them bleed; and Electra calls me “Margaret”. Sometimes Maggie gives me a quick succession of jobs, none of which I have time to get stuck into. Sometimes when I clean a clump of rocks ready for photography, Steve says “Great job” and I suspect sarcasm. Sometimes it’s hard on the wrist: “scrape hard enough to make your wrist hurt” is Maggie’s standard.

But I become more agile, hopping around the trench as it becomes noticeably deeper, and gradually learn to yell “Bidi goofah” to summon a man to empty my bucket made from a recycled tyre. Try to do it myself so I don’t have to shout orders, and they glare at me. Sometimes four men line up, chanting as they pass the buckets along the chain.

On the second last day, it begins to rain. When I poke my head above the trenches at knock off time, I’m dazzled by the sudden greening of Tell Husn, till now quite barren.

Every time I look around the past is visible, and so is the meticulous task of unearthing it.

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Eurobodalla beaches: from Tilba Cemetery towards 1080


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Returning to Australian weekends is easy, in winter sunshine before the wind picks up. We drive the new car out along the spur towards Tilba Cemetery, and suddenly the Pacific Ocean sprawls before us. A sandy track leads us down to a wide beach, backed by grassy dunes, and, towering behind farmland, under bright clouds, sacred Gulaga.

The beach is distinctive. The tideline is marked by lines of small shells in curves and points, depending on the whim of the retreating sea.

The sea is smooth, lazy waves plopping on the sand and splashing laconically.

I’m fascinated by horizontality. J is far ahead as I snap snap snap, his leg functioning well again, the rocks at the far end of the beach dragging him along by his geological curiosity. I’m not focused on geology, just on the feel of Australian sand and wind and sun. I’ve lost any knack I had of geological analytics in my seven weeks in Warsaw. I have to relearn diorite, and … what on earth were the other -ites?

There are no rocks till we approach the northern end and then sudden outcrops and bluffs appear.

I’m easily pleased by sand and rock gardens; rock patterns; and traces of attempted ownership.

We sit companionably for a while in the sun, sheltered by the rocks from the wind.

As we head back, a flock of tiny birds announce their presence by mazes of claw-prints, and then appear, scurry-pause-scurry, shadows and minute sand-spurts in tow.

We return to the car up a different track, through a gate and onto a bare grassy hillside capped by the cemetery