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Postcard from Cobourg

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Postcard from Cobourg

From Kakadu and the  East 'Alligator' River it's a 4hr drive to Cobourg Peninsula's 'Caiman' Creek, although it's anyone's guess what those two reptiles have to do with Australia's Northern Territory... the drive beginning with an East Alligator crossing where the causeway is partially blocked with waiting saltwater crocs  - not alligators - the 2m to 4m beasties ignoring our truck as they wait for tidal change and the unsuspecting fish that follow.

At Caiman Creek we are about 550km east and slightly north of Darwin, getting here via a badly corrugated road, lined with bush and narrow at times.

The region is part of West Arnhem Land, returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1981, having first arrived around 40,000yrs ago and more recently seeing outsiders come and go... Indonesian sailor-traders, buffalo and croc hunters, pearlers, missionaries, tourists and fisherfolk of all denominations.

And it is just south of here that was thought a good place for a European settlement in the 1830s, even without a convenient supply of fresh water, an initial survey conducted at the end of the wet season and the British colonials being preoccupied with a perceived threat of Dutch and French expansion in the region.

A 43m long jetty was built, but wrecked by a cyclone the following year. A prefabricated building intended as 'Government House' was lifted off its stone pillar foundations and dumped 3m away.

Within 6yrs the settlement was struggling, with half the garrison - initially from Tasmania - crowded into the small hospital suffering from malaria... along with scurvy, influenza, dysentery and diarrhea.

And it is the ruins of 'Victoria' we are here to see, a 6hr round trip by boat only, including a 4km hike round the site.

Our guide is Travis, initially from South Australia, maybe 40, with a tangle of dark wind-tussled hair tied in a ponytail, a long-sleeved fishing shirt, football shorts and bare feet. Travis is well read, has worked "in mental health with Central Australian indigenous communities", and has been a tour guide in the Kimberley, Kakadu and Tasmania. These days he is based here, "married with family and a mortgage."

The first thing we see is a 20m high cliff - red and white - with what's left of the jetty below. Travis noses the boat into the shallows and on to the white sandy beach. He grabs a 1-ltr bottle of water... and an epirb - an emergency locating device. "The most important thing we have on board I reckon." He smiles. "Pretty damn isolated out here."

We look around, what is left being stone, the ruins including a powder magazine still intact, and what is left of the married quarters with Cornish-style round stone chimneys. There are also the ruins of 2-Quartermaster's stores, a blacksmith's, limestone kiln, hospital, kitchen and bake house.

The cemetery is a quiet, forlorn place, dominated by a handful of graves including that of an Italian priest who chose to live with the local Aborigines instead of within the settlement, and over on the edge of the jungle a tall stone spire dedicated to the wife of the longest-serving officer - Lieutenant Lambrick  - his 40yo Emma the much-loved matriarch of the settlement who died during childbirth in October 1846. 

Travis is quiet for moment. "Yeah, that was tragic really. But it seems the settlement limped along for another 3yrs, 'till the sickness and death of both the Assistant and Chief Surgeon... the last deaths recorded here."  

Travis shrugs. "Mmmm... odd that one... both the Assistant and Chief dying in the same year I mean."

The late morning glare is intense, and Travis' eyes narrow. "The books tell us they failed here due to ambitious trade hopes not eventuating." I must look doubtful considering the population never exceeded 70 souls. Travis smiled. "Well yeah, I know... they'd hoped that Victoria Settlement could be another Singapore... way out here. But supplies, were unreliable and infrequent, storing stuff in this climate difficult... I mean half the flour weight was weevils! And there was of course the disease, and the wild but mostly oppressive weather."

"They did have a garden I suppose, but the soil is not so good up here, and anything harvested was mostly eaten by rats."

"And malaria was the major killer here, spread by mosquitoes of course... but they never got what it was about." Travis shook his head. "The Aboriginal mobs knew it was mosquitoes that carry malaria. They took preventative steps, like using smoke, and smearing clay on their skin. But the Brits thought malaria was caused by bad air."

Travis has one child, with another baby on the way. He frowns, then gazes out to sea. "No kids made it through here, and I reckon the real reason the place failed was that it died of a broken heart, with the death of Emma Lambrick... and her baby, Emma having already lost her only son the previous year.

"I often wonder what happened to Emma's husband - Lieutenant Lambrick - him being second in charge and the longest serving officer here at Victoria Settlement until finally abandoned in 1849... him losing everything after being stuck here for 11yrs."

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

We are 1000km east of Darwin, our only access to here via the Central Arnhem Road, arriving at the turnoff late afternoon. Then it's still another 20km off the main track, with compulsory vehicle restrictions fair warning - "Vehicle must be 4WD with plenty of clearance, 2m max width x 2-1/2m max height."

On the descent from the escarpment the scrub crowds in, the sand deepens, tree roots and the occasional drift of rock add to the chance of a puncture. Our first glimpse of the water is between 60m dunes, the sand deeper and softer here. Our truck turns into a roller coaster, the steeper crests topped with slats of wood tied together and laid across the track to help with traction. Many of the connections are broken, with some slats impaled in a mess of white sand.

Finally along the beach we choose a path just above the waterline, the tide retreating for the next couple of hours. We pass the sacred site of Twin Eagles,  impressive pieces of rock joined to the mainland by sandbars. This is a wild coast, isolated and often windswept.

Our camp lay between stands of bull oaks where the slightest breeze sounds like the rush of a river, the ocean waves a constant wash, a timeless ebb and flow. A pair of osprey fish just offshore and sooty oyster catchers wander the wet sand. There are dingo footprints for the length of the beach. They seem small and delicate, their direction straight.

We meet Ron the fisherman, a tradie from Darwin. He fishes alone from the rocks here, has 5-rods and has "been here 4-times now." He has dark hair tied back in a pony tail and swims fully clothed in his shirt and jeans, "to cool off after lunch" he says. "Have seen some crocs, but never a dingo till now." Ron has no time for dingoes. "You seen the damage those buggers do?" He wipes loose strands of his wet hair away from his face. "Yeah, this one, she's small... probably has pups somewhere. They'd call her a fox down south."

On our first night any breeze is soon gone, the sea a breathing lullaby, the early evening a welcome relief from the normally sweltering sun. The full moon is late rising, finally lighting the dark, hilly landscape where our truck is nestled.

The next morning we lay low in the shallows, the tide out, the sun already hot. There is no sign of crocs. The dingo approaches from the fisherman's camp, stops and stares, not 5m away... then takes a measured step even closer, her delicate front paws now in the water. She's young, with a fine white muzzle and black nose. We can see her ribs, but her sand-red coat is clean, unmarked by mange or scars.

She sniffs the air and stares, her eyebrows white, those eyes brown and questioning, "Are they dangerous? Are they food... maybe some beached animal that could be dinner?" Her cautious curiosity is tangible, before she finally turns, gives us one last look, then resumes her business-like trot, off and down the beach before turning at some rocks, then disappearing up into the dunes.

That night we cook pork on the campfire, the fireplace a rusted steel ring in the sand, our burning logs within, half the top a cast steel grate.

Early next morning we finish coffee, and there is a movement in the corner of my eye. Then all is still by the makeshift BBQ. She stands still, neck stretched and nose towards the now cold grill, those eyes watching us. But the pork steaks are long gone, just a memory of last night's dinner with a bottle of Italian red wine, a dash of garlic and a kale salad with shredded Parmesan cheese.

It seems those eyes are accustomed to disappointment, and we wonder if there are pups secreted away in a den up the beach. We offer no scraps, and life seems tough for a beautiful animal that has been here for over 4000yrs.

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A walk on a Macassan beach

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A walk on a Macassan beach

We are in East Arnhem Land, the beach windswept, with white sand and red rock shelves, the sun burning, the smell of baked earth and newly-burned grass, the early September temperature around 37degC.

The walk is a loop, the site recently subject to a regular indigenous 'cool burn to keep down the understorey and to better see these pictures that lay on the ground - outlines built of small red rocks in the 1890s by Aboriginal Yolngu elders

And this is their story that could have been lost to future generations, the story of a way of life that existed for hundreds of years and a local connection with the outside world... the Indonesian collection and trading of sea cucumber - or 'trepang' - along with the turtle and pearl shell, all in turn to be traded to the far-off Chinese.

We walk in a clockwise direction, observing the Yolgnu artist's work, an important historical record of visitors to this shore called 'Macassans' - from the Indonesian island of Makassar - pictures of their boats and stone houses, of their fireplaces for boiling the trepang.

The Macassan sailors came each December with the monsoon winds - sailing their tri-mast vessels - the 1600km journey taking 2wks. They would set up camp at their stone houses by tamarind trees planted on previous visits as location markers, returning home with the corresponding southeast trade winds.

They did business with local clans and in exchange for Yolngu labour - and the use of their land - the Macassans traded canoes, metal knives, axes, spears and fish hooks, along with glass and tobacco. Several Yolngu visited Indonesia, returning to East Arnhem the following year.

We follow the marked walking track from the stone outline of a Macassan sailing vessel to that of a Macassan stone house, and wonder at the march of progress... the last Macassan visit in 1907, 'the last' due to an Australian edict to introduce licenses and taxes payable in Darwin before any trade - the direction of the winds making sailing to Darwin impossible.

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6-months on the road

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6-months on the road

For this milestone we are in Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land.... and we are wandering the airy corridors of the YIRRKALA ART CENTRE - an expansive display of Indigenous Arnhem Aboriginal art.

It's been 6mths now, since leaving the cooler climes of Bayside Melbourne... and every now and then something special has come our way...  like a special moment or thing, an event, a place or person. This time it's all about a priceless national treasure we have never heard of.

To get to Yirrkala it's been a drive on the reddest of roads,  billowing dust the norm, corrugations common and the occasional rut  - '24hrs from Katherine' the information brochure says, although 'only' 700km as our truck flies.

We overnight at Mainoru Roadhouse, our recommended stop in accordance with our over-the-counter, no-cost, 10-day permit from the Northern Land Council office in the Katherine main street.

On our arrival at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, we seek out the 'Dhimurru Corporation' office for camping permits on Aboriginal land, then our NT liquor permit to buy take-away alcohol.

The seaside town of Yirrkala is 20km to the south, the scent of frangipani on a breeze, the sun hot, the Gulf of Carpentaria a glittering turquoise blue and the sand a dazzling white.

The gallery is adjacent an Aussie Rules oval of green grass, a stadium/shed and store. Impressive murals cover outside walls... the heros of Aboriginal rights going back to the 1960s. The gallery entry is plain and unadorned, the glass door dark and dusty under a wide, shady verandah. 

Once inside is another story... a treasure-trove of handmade indigenous art typical of this isolated region. There are forests of traditional wooden Yidaki - didgeridoo - with the most intricate traditional designs, wall hangings and paintings. Shelves are stacked full of books, CDs and carvings. Simple racks are laden with woven bags and a photographer snaps special pieces in a cluttered room off to the side.

Justin is lean, has a greying mane of straight hair and has been here since the 90s. He rises from behind his computer screen, stands tall in a plain white tee-shirt and blue jeans. There is something we must see, he says.

Out back is a specially-built darkened room with timber steps down to a small sunken cellar of sorts - atmospheric with soft lighting designed to highlight 2-vertical panels. Both are intricate in their design - rustic browns and blacks - with a low bench seat directly across from, and in front of the panels. There is a lot for the visitor to take in. 

The panels are about 1m wide by 3m high and hang side by side. And they tell an Aboriginal creation story, wonderfully presented in detail by the Indigenous artists, but evidently with no Christian influence, coersion or direction.

Justin tells a story that begins "before my time", the panels created by Yolnu elders and gifted to the newly opened Methodist church in 1963, intended for permanent display as a screen behind the communion table. Justin waves one hand towards the front door. "You would have seen the church over the road."

The story continues... 10yrs after the panels are installed - around 1983 -  a new missionary arrives at the church, saying the panels are inappropriate for a church, and are most certainly "heathen" works. Both panels are stripped from inside the church against the wishes of the Parish Committee.

The panels lie neglected and forlorn for 4yrs - but are never completely forgotten - propped against an outside wall exposed to the ways of mud wasps and weather, before being rescued by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, then cleaned by the staff of the Australian University.

Justin pauses for effect and to gather his thoughts while peering over the top of thin-rimmed glasses. "And that was the beginning of a movement here in Arnhem Land... you might say, the very beginning of the entire Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement."

Down in the cellar my eyes are drawn to the panel on the right, with a small figure top and centre - a diminutive, painted bird - this little bird being the ancestral link between the spirit and the temporal worlds, flanked by helpers on his immediate right and left... the cicada and the possum. Alas, an ancient story considered inappropriate to the doctrines taught in a civilized house of worship. 

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Postcard from Seven Emu

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Postcard from Seven Emu

From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU',  a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.

OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.

For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.

The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.

The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face,  the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.

And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."

I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."

We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.

Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.

Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"

Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."

I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."

We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.

Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.

But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.

By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.

Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."

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postcard from laura

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postcard from laura

Down from 'The Tip' we say goodbye to our top end `adventure-4WD' companions Wendy and Al, and it's on to Laura... not to be confused with nearby 'Old Laura' or 'New Laura'... and we are here for the 2017 bi-annual ABORIGINAL DANCE FESTIVAL.

Laura is an outback town with a population of 80 - a pub with Chinese backpacker staff that serves barramundi and beer, with space for campers out back. There's a post office doubling as a general store, a caravan park and tourist information centre.

But it's just to the south of here that things get special... with the world-famous Aboriginal QUINKAN ROCK ART going back thousands of years, including striking depictions of emus, kangaroos, human figures and the ever-present spirit world. And further south there is a camping ground surrounded by a natural rock amphitheatre where the dance festival is held.

And this year's festival has special significance for us, being just back from 'The Tip', and now with some knowledge of the participating Cape York Aboriginal communities that include Mapoon, Bamaga and Lockhart River... isolated Australian Cape communities of which we were previously unaware.

Our favourites are the Lockhart mob, having visited the area on our way north to the tip of Cape York, and having been lucky to later meet 2-teachers considering leaving their current positions at a Brisbane school to embark on "more challenging, more rewarding roles"... at Lockhart River as it happens.

We are camped nextdoor at Elliot Falls when we first meet on the Old Telegraph Track, and after a swim to wash off the dust are kindly invited around to share their fire.

Steve is aware of the gravity of their decision, but they are both "looking for a change after almost 30 years in the system". He pauses to collect the right words, looks across at his partner Karen and adds. "We really would like to make a difference, and we think we can do that." He pokes at the fire. "I'm told the big thing is to get the kids to school in the first place, and then to create opportunities for them that make coming to school a more appealing option than not coming". He then adds " We hope to go there and be good role models for the kids." Steve looks pensive, and Karen nods agreement. We are impressed. Steve is a big guy, looks fit, and both Steve and Karen are eloquent and impassioned. We are sure they'll be a formidable combination, a great help to the Lockhart community and the school principal whom they have both known since the late 80's where they met in Canberra.

At Laura the dance festival is in full swing, with the LOCKHART RIVER MOB currently going through their paces. And it's obvious they are the favourites in our part of the crowd, especially with a woman in a wide-brimmed hat. She stands behind us, her shouts enthusiastic, loud and encouraging... and very biased.

We are struck by the age mix of these Lockhart dancers - tiny kids of around 2yo, teenagers and older dancers too. One Elder wears glasses and has an intercom unit strapped to his belt. Another is a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, wild grey hair and very animated... all have the traditional paint, grass skirts and the totemic moves of their clan. And we are struck by the rhythms and chants, the gasps and cheers of the mixed crowd... the hypnotic click of clapsticks and boomerangs.

Postscript - 13 July 2017 - We receive a message today from Steve and Karen. Yes, the enthusiastic Lockhart supporter at the Laura festival was in fact the current Lockhart school principal Siobhan. And Steve and Karen have accepted the offer to live among the Lockhart River Aboriginal community to teach and mentor the kids.

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Grim by name but not by nature - `Cape Grim', North West Tasmania

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Grim by name but not by nature - `Cape Grim', North West Tasmania

Time for another trip in the new truck, and our first ferry - overnight from Melbourne to Davenport - the treacherous Bass Strait an ominous black chop.

With an early dinner and a cosy twin cabin our morning port of Davenport lay sleepy and cold.

By midday we're 180kms to the west, the most northwest point of Tasmania, with an annual rainfall of almost 1m and according to one of only 3 'Baseline Air Pollution Stations' on the planet `THE CLEANEST AIR IN THE WORLD'.

We've passed rolling green fields of wind turbines, over 50 of the gangly beasts producing 12% of the state's power; each 60m tall, with rotors the span of a Boeing747 and generator housings as big as a bus.

Next it's the old Van Dieman's Land Company homestead - once a great wool empire. There's a deserted shearing shed and echoed footsteps from a dust-laden floor. There's a rambling shearers' quarters and a gap in a dark row of cyprus wrent by a recent tornado, miraculously leaving the old kitchen intact, the photos of black folk with missionary garb and blank bewildered stares.

And finally we're up here on the coast, the goal of our journey; buffeted by fresh salty air and the crash of grandiose southern oceans.

To the south lay the Antarctic. To the west, the famed 'Roaring 40s' winds, blown all the way from Argentina past the southern tip of Africa to get here; those same gales lashing our faces. We've wool and possum fur beanies pulled down tight, flapping Goretex jackets all buttoned up. I wonder at the wrecks that must surely be buried in paddocks of kelp that sway on sub-sea tides.

We gaze northward, to a tall natural rampart topped by rich green grass, grey and white waves crashing at its base - this is 'Suicide Bay', where a band of the indigenous Pendowtee people were shot in 1828, their bodies thrown over the edge of the 60m precipice; the culmination of a series of events beginning with the harassment, abduction and rape of Pendowtee womenfolk.

So we really are at `Cape Grim', evocatively named by the intrepid English navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders, from his 8m open whaling boat... for the wild weather and bitter winds, the huge swells, hissing foam and boiling cauldron seas, or maybe the treacherous rocky reefs... or could it really have been named in honour of a Mr 'Grim'?

There are flashes of sun on shining seas, the salt and spray a timeless presence. Broken clouds race on eastward, shedding shadows dark, on grassy tussocks and rolling pastures painted in hues of emerald green.

`GRIM' BY NAME, BUT NOT BY NATURE.

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Postcard from Lanjanuc – Mt Alexander, Central Victoria

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Postcard from Lanjanuc – Mt Alexander, Central Victoria

This is our first road trip in the new truck.

We head north on the Calder for an hour at the start of this southern Spring. It's Kyneton for coffee, and baguettes for later.

Another half hour and we leave the Harcourt Valley towards Sutton Grange, then off again northward to the mountain where the truck grinds upwards, and where we finally pull over to the side.

A tartan, rubber-backed blanket is spread over a mammoth granite slab, our sitting spot framed by trees with scars of black; their burned bark a reminder of savage summer infernos from years gone by, rushing up from 350m below, those same rolling plains now a painted panorama of pastoral green. 

Television towers cast shadows over us, straddling grey eucalypts and grey ragged boulders; shadows the Jaara Jaara folk never saw as they sought out tucker of Black Wallaby, ringtail or Eastern Grey. There's a shimmer in the leaves, the breeze slight and from the south, the smells all eucalyptus and earthen. They called this place `Lanjanuc', those first people; a 370 million year-old granite and bush-covered outcrop, a sacred place of solace and observing their ancient but suddenly changing world. 

In our world, the late lunch baguettes are welcome: of eggplant, chicken and crusty French bread. It's 12degC, the sun warm on our backs, Bendigo somewhere to the north. 

It's getting late when we head onwards and downwards, but there's something else here to see: something odd and strangely out of kilter.

We follow the western slopes south, cockatoos and corellas grazing in a paddock; sidling past sprawling orchards of apple and pear. Then on a red, rutted dirt track once more up, in the north-west foothills now, classic Australian bush both sides.

Until just ahead there's a change, no Manna, Wattle or Box just here; and not the ubiquitous dark spread of plantation Pine. 

These trunks are tall and straight, the sweeping bows wide and still winter bare, while on the ground lay a wild crossbreed jungle of suckers that defy the last of winter, a riot of large green leaves - classic Oak. So, this is `THE OAK FOREST' - the 20-acre, planting a mix of Algerian, bristle-tipped, English and cork. Planted in 1900, there were grand plans to use the acorns in the leather tanning industry.

Looking back down the hill, the truck sits silent at the bottom of the track in the last of afternoon sun and surrounded by a forest more in keeping with Medieval Europe than in the walkabout wilds of Central Victoria. We're 150km north of Melbourne, an Antipodean-European city just 180 years old.

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