Zoos: No Longer Something For Me

I can’t recall the last time that I went to a zoo. It’s been a while. I think the last time was a visit to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. This is an open style zoo: barriers are in place to keep the animals and the humans safe, but they are largely unobtrusive, and give the impression of relative freedom, even if this is on a limited scale.

Spotted tail quoll

Spotted-tail quoll

During a visit to Launceston, I had a wander through the Tasmania Zoo. It is home to many varieties of animals that I wouldn’t expect to see in the middle of a small island, such as camels, lions and tigers. It was a bit of a hike to get there, and I travelled there through the aptly named Meander Valley. As I got out of the car, I could hear sulphur-crested cockatoos swirling above, along with a mixed medley of other bird and animal calls. I paid my entry fee and had a wander about.

Wombat

Wombat

The extensive collection of caged birds began at the entrance. There was the element of novelty initially – how wonderful to see birds that to date I have only seen in books, such as zebra and Gouldian finches. But this novelty soon wore off. Seeing the glorious red-tailed black cockatoos clinging to the chicken wire netting was unsettling. By the time I saw the galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and long-billed corellas, I’d had enough. Seeing the beautiful Australian king parrots in cages nearly made me cry. They are a gloriously frequent sight in the Blue Mountains and other parts of the mainland: bright, bold and cheeky.

Carnaby's black cockatoo

Carnaby’s black cockatoo

There was a camel, just the one, on site. I passed by the growling, hissing, spitting, fussing and fighting Tasmanian devils, who had just been fed and were busy crunching on something feathered (it really was time for me to leave). A highlight was a pair of wombats, very sweet to look at in their lumbering kind of way. And I detoured to see a short-beaked echidna snuffling with great intent before raising its beak. I was surprised to see a red panda moving about an enclosure. Apparently, they were discovered before the black and white pandas that we usually think of these days.

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devil

There were small family groups walking around the park, and I’m sure it’s a great way for kids to learn about animals and birds and the like, but I found the whole experience unsettling.

It may be a reflection of the changes within me more than anything else as the birds and animals were cared for. I feel such pleasure in spotting birds in the wild, watching them in adaptive capacities in areas filled with people, and seeing them go about their own thing. Seeing them caged along with animals was just too much for me on the day.

Red panda

Red panda

Zoos have an important role to play in conservation and education, but I won’t be heading back to one anytime soon.

When was the last time you visited a zoo?

[Photo: short-beaked echidna]

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NaNoWriMo Learnings

I decided in mid-October to join in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. It was time to do something about some of my longer writing ideas, and NaNoWriMo seemed like perfect timing.

Due to other commitments, I didn’t have time to plot out the idea that I was intending to write about. I had some vague thoughts about character development and some of the key characters involved, but not a definite idea as to how it might all play out. But I put these concerns aside and decided that it would be good to write and see where the story took me.

I kept my preparation simple. I watched a couple of videos about NaNoWriMo, specifically around time management. Advice that I adopted included turning off banner notifications on social media and hiding the apps that I tend to go to for a quick distraction fix.

I made sure that I had writing software Scrivener synchronised across my devices. I needed to be flexible and to be able to write wherever I was. For part of NaNoWriMo, I was travelling about and didn’t always have great mobile or WiFi reception. I was able to keep working on my phone or tablet as I went from place to place, and even in areas of indifferent reception, I was able to synchronise my work so I could pick it up again when needed. I found that I was writing in really small time slots. Waiting for a couple of minutes? Time enough to tap out a line or two, or make a note as to where the next thread of the story was to go. It helped to keep me connected to the story and feel that no time was wasted.

One of the things that made the biggest impact was using the Pomodoro Technique. This involves working for 25-minute blocks with short breaks. This can be repeated for a set number of cycles before there is a longer break. I started using this on a Sunday afternoon when I really wanted to nap rather than write. But I could sit for 25 minutes and write a word or two, surely? When the ideas were flowing, I was surprised to see that I could type about 1200 words in a 25-minute block. Over time this averaged out around 1000 words and it showed me that I could write effectively in short blocks. This tapped into writing under time pressure, and knowing that I only expected myself to concentrate and ignore everything else for less than half an hour made it much easier to adopt this approach.

From the outset, I knew that whether I hit the word target or not, I would have written more by the end of the November than if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo. This was certainly the case. What I didn’t expect was to be able to sharpen my writing approach in ways that provide confidence for the future. I can use some of these learnings to maintain my writing practice, and many of my preconceived notions of obstacles to writing have been satisfactorily undermined. It was well worth the effort to discover this!

When did you last participate in a creative challenge, and what surprised you?

[Photo: old typewriter]

Tamar Island Wetlands, Launceston

During a trip to Launceston, Tasmania, earlier this year, I ventured out to Tamar Island Wetlands Centre and Reserve. On a windy day in the middle of winter, it wasn’t perhaps the optimal time to have a look but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I trotted to the visitors’ centre and paused for a moment to watch black swans on the water. There is something mesmerising about watching them dip deeply into the water for food with their impossibly long necks. I had been spotting them around most bodies of water that I’d passed in northern Tasmania, but it was nice to be able to pause and really watch them for a while.

Tamar Island views

Tamar Island views from the boardwalk

A boardwalk travels across reed beds, winding its way over bodies of water. The boardwalk is well designed and wire ensures slippage is minimal. This matters, particularly as the walk is a long one and it was busy enough on the day I was wandering about. Along the long bridges across the waterways, there were inset areas for resting or watching, which came in handy.

Black Swan

A black swan landing in the estuary

Guides suggest an hour and a half to two hours for the walk out to Tamar Island and back, and with some dawdling it took me about the two-hour mark, although I was quite a bit quicker on the way back courtesy of a strong tailwind.

Tamar River

Tamar River views

But what of the birds? Apart from black swans, there were ducks, lots of fairy-wrens, strident purple swamphens, Tasmanian native hens and chestnut teals, amongst others.

Common starling

Common starling on Tamar Island

Tamar Island is about seven hectares, and there are signs of earlier use around the island. A number of exotic trees can be spotted, including cedar, elm and an English oak tree. The oak tree has an old plough embedded in it. There are some fruit trees and pathways which provide hints of the occupation of the island before usage of this Crown Land was returned to the government.

Swamp paperbark

Swamp paperbark

This was an enjoyable walk through estuarine wetlands with many highlights including the common reeds along the boardwalk, the swamp paperbark and, of course, the birds. The Tamar Island Walk is another of Tasmania’s 60 Great Short Walks.

[Photo: black swan in flight above the Tamar River]

On The Joys of the Written Word

Recently I had my blog posts for 2017 printed. My usual process is to print off a draft copy, edit, reprint, edit and hopefully have a final version of the post that I’m happy with. This copy, in a rough black and white form, is kept in a folder. Occasionally I go back and reprint a post in colour, especially now that I am using more photos in my posts.

Last year I looked into having some of my posts published in a format that I could keep handy. I ended up having three small books printed: one for my alphabet adventures, one for mountain musings and the final one on words and creativity. They were in A5 size, soft covered and a delight to receive. It really was a different experience to see the posts arranged in order, especially as when I was writing them I was alternating between topics.

Months pass by and many blog posts later, I thought it would be good to have a copy of the posts from 2017 in a single volume. One of the things about content is that it accumulates. There are times when something comes to my attention and I remember that I’ve written a post on that topic. WordPress is great with the ability to search a blog using a keyword and it is easy to be reacquainted with something that has been written previously. But in this format, the posts are still, well, virtual. Being able to flick through a body of work with it in hand is a different experience to scrolling through links online.

So I had a look through the BlookUp site and selected a hardcover book style to hold a year’s worth of words. It is simple to export the posts from a set period, and there is some scope for editing the content for things like formatting errors. I then designed the front and back cover, adding a little content and photographs, and saved the work. I thought it best to leave it overnight as I contemplated the cost for the physical printing and postage from France. Was it self-indulgent to go down this path?

The next day I felt no different. A cursory glance through the book content – I had amended what I could, within reason – and I proceeded to order the book. The timeframe for delivery was 15 days which I thought was generous. The last order had taken seemingly ages to arrive, but this time I had the book in my hands within a fortnight. Not bad considering it had to be printed and sent to Australia.

It is perfect. Well, I should say that any errors in the book are mine as my hastiness in editing and ordering could have been tempered a little. But it is hard to convey the buzz I felt when holding this book which represented a year of words and photos that meant something to me. The pages are glossy and the photos pop with colour. Already I am looking to my 2018 edition, and I haven’t finished the year off yet!

My learnings would be to run a draft copy and really look closely at the formatting of quotes and poems in particular. I had picked up one photo as a header early in 2017 but couldn’t work out how to fix it without updating the post itself and running the export again. At the time it was too much effort. I might take a bit more time with it next year.

But to say I’m really impressed with the results is an understatement.

Do you keep a copy of any of your favourite posts?

{Photo: front cover of blog book for 2017}

Dove Lake Circuit, Cradle Mountain

One of the most exhilarating walks I’ve done this year was the Dove Lake Circuit at Cradle Mountain. It is one of several walks available in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park in northern Tasmania and is one of the more manageable walks for visitors with limited time in the area. The park is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and is regarded as a place of unique beauty with diverse vegetation in an alpine setting.

Mt Roland topped with clouds on road from Sheffield

Mt Roland topped with clouds on road from Sheffield

Getting to Cradle Mountain takes about two and a half hours from Launceston, about the same from Hobart and slightly less from Devonport. I travelled from Launceston via Sheffield, fortifying myself with a cup of excellent Tasmanian coffee in this tidy town of murals before continuing on. The road to the park spiralled about with many hairpin bends during the ascent. I had picked the day with the best weather outlook, but even so, there were light showers along the way and there were stretches when I was seemingly driving through rainbows. The vegetation changed from rich green fields with cows grazing on stubbled fields to low growing heath with the shift in altitude.

Snow capped peaks around the lake

Snow-capped peaks around the lake

Parking is available at the entrance of the camp, along with a cafe and tourist information centre. I bought a day-pass which included shuttle bus rides to various points of the park, and this took me to the edge of Dove Lake. It is recommended that all walkers register their departure and return at a cabin, so I did this before heading off in a clockwise direction around the lake after taking a moment to soak in the vista of snow-capped mountains.

Fungal growth on branches

Fungal growth on branches

The circuit is mainly crushed stone and gravel interspersed with wooden steps, requiring some tricky manoeuvres around errant tree roots and the like. There are some stretches of boardwalk but the main track is the gravel pathway.

Tea tree blossoms

Tea tree blossoms

There were quite a few people also walking the circuit, and polite greetings were exchanged as we moved past each other. Early on in the walk, I was impressed when a couple ran past me; this impressed me more the further I went on. There are some stretches of the circuit that are steep and stepped in parts, tricky enough to navigate at a measured pace.

Water and mountains

Clear lake water with mountains in the background

Clouds were apparently drawn to the top of the peaks, but it was still something out of this world to marvel at the mountains curved around the lake. As a contrast to the sheer magnitude of all that rock, I found delight in spotting different flora along the walk. There were pink mountain berries, tea trees, hakea shrubs and little bell flowers. The lichen also caught my eye – so many different colours, and there were parts of the walk where it was like walking through a bright green world. I was also fascinated by the warm tiger tones of one of the gums, luminous against the green. This walk would offer different delights in every season.

Tiger stripped trees along the boardwalk

Tiger stripped trees along the boardwalk

Along the way, there were some places to stop, rest and take in the surroundings. Some places were covered in snowy ice, but the sun kept peeping through the clouds to offer warmth between the cooler moments.

Trees with unusual shapes throughout the ballroom forest

Trees with unusual shapes throughout the Ballroom Forest

Towards the end of the circuit, there is the beautiful Ballroom Forest. It is a cool temperate rainforest with myrtle-beech trees in a moss-covered world, with wonderfully clear water crossing underneath the boardwalk in parts. The final stretch, reached after a steep climb, winds its way around the boathouse which was built in 1940 by the first ranger at Cradle Mountain. From there it was a short walk back to the carpark and a return to reality.

Boathouse on Dove Lake

Boathouse on Dove Lake

The circuit is about six kilometres and takes about two hours to walk, longer if you take your time to take in the beautiful surroundings. It was an amazing experience and is one of Tasmania’s 60 Great Short Walks.

[Photo: cloud-topped view of Cradle Mountain from Dove Lake]

Flash Fiction: Owl

Owen wasn’t the sharpest owl in the tree, but it wasn’t his fault. His Mum said it was because he fell out of the nest when he was only a few days old. She reckoned that he landed on his head and that was why his eyesight was a bit out of alignment. It certainly made flying a challenge. He could still remember his first few attempts. The sense of trepidation, the trembling of his wings as he flung them out, mimicking the deep swoops and thrusts that he’d seen the others do. The first few wing beats were spectacular, or so they told him afterwards. Or perhaps they were spectacular when compared to his spiralled tumble to the ground.

But over time he’d found a way to adapt. By squinting, just a little, his vision seemed to balance out. When the others took off at night he was the last to leave. It was better that way. Less chance of somehow tangling his way into another owl’s flight path. This had happened a few times and the indignant squeaks and squawks were worse than any trapped prey that he’d heard.

And Owen found it easier to whistle, just a little, as he flew. This had caused rumblings of discontent within the parliament and he’d been lectured several times on the importance of silence in flight. It wasn’t all about the stereotype, or so he was told, but there wasn’t a lot of tolerance for an owl who whistled.

He had to admit that it was impressive to watch other owls go about their nightly hunts. The extraordinary vision and finely tuned senses picked up any movement within microseconds with a degree of accuracy which was breathtaking, especially for the prey. The typical image of an owl was still, quiet and wise, but he knew that it was their ability as honed killers that deserved praise.

Over time he trained himself to whistle after the kill. He had learned the importance of fitting in, mostly, with his fellow owls.

{Photo: three green owls}

Impressions of Launceston, Tasmania

A couple of months ago, I headed off to Launceston for a few days. There is something almost comforting about the compactness of Tasmania; even in a few short days it is possible to see a lot of places if the mood takes you, or you can simply enjoy just being and really exploring a place if that is your preference. The year before I had a similar break in Hobart which was invigorating and relaxing. I was curious to see what the largest city in the north of the island had to offer.

Launceston streetscape, Cameron Street

Launceston streetscape – Cameron Street

Launceston is located in a natural basin at the head of the Tamar River, where it joins the North and South Esk. Mere minutes from the centre of the city, the South Esk plunges into Cataract Gorge, a steep basalt chasm. This is a popular tourist destination with paths along the cliff face and boasts the world’s longest single chairlift span.

Statue of Dr Pugh with Chalmer's Church in background

Dr Pugh and Chalmer’s Church, Prince’s Square

It is home to many nineteenth-century buildings, and there are many architectural delights to discover. Many of the fine heritage buildings have discrete but informative plaques outlying their history and previous uses, as appropriate. There are several suggested walks around the city which follow heritage buildings, stories of trade, public offices and places of worship. One of the first buildings that caught my eye was Chalmer’s Church. It opened for worship in 1860 and is an example of the Free Church of Scotland in Tasmania. It overlooks Prince’s Square, which has been many things including a parade ground. The statue that can be glimpsed in the bottom middle of the photo is of Dr William Russ Pugh who in the 1840s was the first person to operate with general aesthetic in the Southern Hemisphere.

Val d'Osne Fountain in Prince's Square

Val d’Osne Fountain in Prince’s Square

City Park was a lovely place for a wander. The land was originally used to house Launceston’s Government House and by 1841 the area was being used as a People’s Park, with a small admission fee. The gardens were gifted to the people of Launceston as a public park in 1863. In 1897 the Children’s Jubilee Fountain was installed to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. There is also a large colony of Japanese Macaques in the park, a mark of the sister city relationship with Ikeda City in Japan.

Jubilee Fountain and John Hart Conservatory in City Park

Jubilee Fountain and John Hart Conservatory

Across the river, the former Launceston Railway Workshops are now home to the Queen Victoria Museum. At one time there were over 270 railway stations in Tasmania. The passenger railway service was closed in 1978 but there are quite a few heritage railways in operation around the island and bulk freight still uses part of the rail network.

North Esk River views including brewery

North Esk River view with breweries along the riverbank

For a city of over 80,000 with lots of interesting buildings and places to visit, a handful of days wasn’t really enough to do it justice. I kept being drawn back to the river with its links to the commercial history of the town, its development, and the consequences of flooding – there have been 36 significant floods recorded to date. It was while strolling along the riverbank, taking in views of the Boag brewery and old Custom House, that I first saw Tasmanian Native Hens.

Tasmanian Native Hens

Tasmanian Native Hens

Launceston is a central base for further exploration, with Devonport relatively close by along with historic towns including the nearby Evandale, Ross and the mural town of Sheffield all within an easy drive. Hobart is about 200 kilometres away – not far in mainland terms but there was enough to keep my attention within Launceston, and it is a place that I’m sure I’ll return to again.

{Photo: gargoyle from church in Launceston}

November is NaNoWriMo

Like many writers around the world, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. This annual event calls out a challenge to writers to put procrastination aside and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. A daily average of 1,666 words, give or take, will get you to the finish line. But as with all memorable experiences, it is more about the journey than the destination.

This will be my third NaNoWriMo. I don’t do it every year for various reasons. The majority of my writing is in the short story form, so writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t really fit in with that approach. But there are often stories or ideas that cannot be confined to a restricted word count. Sometimes it is good to explore an idea over a longer format, to give characters a chance to develop and discover things along the way.

The word count is a challenge but I’m not overly concerned about it as I was able to meet the target at my last two attempts. It was easier the second time as I knew what to expect, and on days when the words were flowing, I made the most of it to provide a buffer for the days when life got in the way. There is comfort in knowing that even if the word count isn’t met, I will have more words written by the end of November than if I’d not participated.

And I do like a creative challenge. Since May I have been writing a minimum of 250 words a day on various topics. This has included short stories, flash fiction, blog posts and general personal rants that help to keep my sanity in check. It has helped me feel connected to writing, and on most days I write beyond the minimum. There are some days when it is a bit of a challenge but I’ve surprised myself by maintaining the momentum. Ideas seem to pop up throughout the day, or I’ll wake up with a clear idea of what I want to write, which is a special kind of thrill.

The prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge, even with a regular writing habit to draw strength from. But I like the idea of pushing myself creatively for a month, to give writing extra focus, and to be part of a worldwide community of writers who are also out there, scribbling and tapping and creating worlds of their own at the same time.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or some other creative challenge?

[Photo: a reminder that you can do hard things, spotted at Lane Cove]

Warming to Wattlebirds

Wattlebirds are mentioned early on in Where Song Began by Tim Low. Noted ornithologist John Gould described the sound made by little wattlebirds as similar to the sound made by a person vomiting. It is true that their call is harsh, but living in an area populated by red wattlebirds has softened my view of them.

 

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Red wattlebird in flight

As a honeyeater, red wattlebirds are a fiercely territorial bird. They call out to mark their territory and play an important role as pollinators. To watch a wattlebird or two tug away at nectar-filled blossoms is quite a sight to behold, as they are quite large birds although the Tasmanian yellow wattlebird is the largest honeyeater.

Little wattlebird

Little wattlebird, Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

In the earlier days of colonisation, wattlebirds were hunted for the dinner table.

Red wattlebirds sold in Sydney’s poultry shops in large numbers. They were pronounced the best eating bird in the bush. Sugar produces a sweet meat that pleased colonial bellies. (p. 28)

Whilst these birds are no longer hunted for food, they provide a regular background of calls and clucks with a steady presence throughout the year. They are shy yet bold, not willing to come too close yet not entirely uncomfortable with human presence. They will take on magpies and currawongs, birds larger and known for their territorial aggression, in order to preserve their area. They are active birds, shifting quickly from trees to bushes in search of nectar.

Red wattle bird

Red wattlebird

They have a narrow beak, as befits a honeyeater, and reddish eyes which match their red wattles. These are small flaps of skin that hang beneath their neck. The red wattlebirds have a yellow underbelly.

Not all of their calls are harsh; some are softer and more gentle on the ears. Hearing their distinctive call is one of the wonderful reminders for me that I am home.

[Photo: red wattlebird]

Writing Prompt: It Would Only Take A Couple of Clicks …

It would only take a couple of clicks to do it, to get ahead of Jacko, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. It wasn’t out of pity. Don’t get me wrong. Jacko was a bastard and most of the crew would be pleased to beat him at a session, let alone over a day. He was the gun shearer in the area and everyone knew it. His reputation seeped beyond the district boundaries so that people passing through knew of him if they had friends or relatives in the surrounding towns.

We’d matched each other, sheep for sheep, all day. At first he’d hammed it up, singing out and showboating with his shears, sighing loudly as our calls for ‘sheepo’ came increasingly in tandem. Then, after morning smoko, he started sledging. I ignored him, which made him worse. But I focused my energy on working faster and cleaner, wasting less movement and needing less tar. By lunch we were even again.

He shouldered me as he passed me on the way back, and the afternoon was full of sly tricks and sleights. We were down to the last two sheep of the day, and the rest of the crew had backed off, some cleaning their gear as we went for it, click for click. I was sweating so much I could hardly see, my hands slick with greasy wool that filled the pocked holes where burrs had torn at my skin. All I could see were sheep bellies and chests and legs and a blur of khaki eyes, boggled by fear.

I could hear Jacko grunt with effort, then curse as his sheep buckled. It happens. They’re not as stupid as people think. They pick up on emotions like other animals do.

To hell with it. I gave one last burst of clicks, tossed off the fleece and sent the sheep on its way. The shed erupted in a cheer as I unbent my back, every muscle screaming in protest. As the cheer faded I heard Jacko’s final click. He didn’t raise his eyes to mine. It wasn’t easy to be beaten by a girl.

[Photo: sign at Rydalmere]