From my deck the familiar Frogmouth lump in the tree seemed to have doubled. She-oak bark camouflaged as this bird is, my eyes always need to peer hard to work out this lump’s doings.

But there were two of them, one on the nest and one on an adjacent branch. Great; a pair!

And then I realised that the nest sitter was now sitting on more than sticks.

Two fluffy heads were somehow fitting beneath that mother, squashed into that always too-small nest in the crook of the She-Oak.

‘Welcome!!’ I called, delighted beyond measure that in my new home this gift had been delivered while I was at the Pilliga, trying to protect such natural wonders.

The Frogmouth chicks seemed to swell as I watched. I was full of questions.

However will they and the mother fit on that little nest for very long?

How long will the male stay around?

Had he only arrived for the hatching or had I just not seen him before?

Had they taken shifts to sit on the eggs?

Neither adult replied, but one chick opened a golden eye wider and gave me a most adult ‘look’. Yes, I know; I am ignorant.

But oh, so grateful!

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Last weekend about 300 people gathered from farflung parts of the east coast to show that they cared — about the unique Pilliga Forest and its flora and fauna, about the Great Artesian Basin, about the farmers of the North West — and about the Santos CSG Narrabri Project that threatens them all.

Most camped at Barkala, home to the deservedly famous Pilliga Pottery, a creative and conservation oasis built by Maria and her family over decades, on their beautiful Pilliga property, a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Photo by Jo Holden

From Friday evening onwards the cars rolled in from the dusty road, tents and signs popped up, and volunteers manned information and kitchen tents.

The 200 or so campers spent Saturday morning on walks and tours discovering the Pilliga. I opted for Maria’s Walk, to her special lookout, where we looked across one aspect of the vast 500,000 ha. of this largest temperate woodland west of the Great Dividing Range.

Maria pointed out to us and her small grandson the distant Warrumbungles, with the dome of Sidings Springs Observatory just visible. Their special Dark Sky status will be ruined if Santos proceed: science and tourism gone for gas.

The Pilliga is one of Australia’s biodiversity hotspots; at first passing glance it may look the same, but is actually most diverse and rich, with around 30 distinct ecosystems, home to over 1000 native plant species and 300 animals, including 15 threatened flora species and 35 threatened fauna species… at least so far as we know, since the Pilliga has not yet revealed all its mysteries.

Those we do know, like the Pilliga Mouse, the Black-striped Wallaby and the Koala– cannot survive in the maze of an industrial gas field.

On Barkala itself, we walked through the varying vegetation of forested gullies and ridges, with dry waterholes, sandstone caves and cliffs– from one of which a rather majestic feral billygoat warily surveyed us.

Workshops filled the afternoon, with planning forums and a fabulous indigenous dance performance into the twillight before dinner and music and song. And bed, as a 7a.m. start was planned for Sunday’s actions.

Amazingly, an early and bountiful breakfast awaited, plus snacks to take with us. A long convoy of vehicles drove for about an hour, up the Newell Highway and into Pilliga State Forest to dry sandy Bohena Creek, site of the human NO CSG sign we were there to make.

Many more met us there, locals and farmers, our numbers now being about 300 passionate Pilliga Protectors. The Pilliga region is so vast that even locals may have to drive several hours to get to another part, as today.

Several farmers spoke eloquently and movingly about the grave risk — guaranteed? — to the water sources on which they depend. The Pilliga is a critical recharge area for the GAB. Depletion and pollution of precious water — for an uneconomic and unnecessary gas resource?

Fire danger from the tall gas flares, permitted even on total fire ban days in this dry forest, was another huge concern.

The insanity of the Santos CSG project was made crystal clear; there are no good reasons for it, only obvious reasons why it must not proceed.

Marshalls directed us to the letters drawn in the sand; about 60 people per letter. All ages were here, from the elderly on sticks to kids and dogs of course a clutch of Knitting Nannas, from the Central Coast, Newcastle, Gloucester, the Manning and the Northern Rivers.

Photo from Protecting the Pilliga Facebook page

It was hot as we waited for the drone to adequately capture our message to Santos and the government, but the excitement was as high as the very vocal determination to stop this shortsighted vandalism of our land and our children’s future. I happened to be on the ’S’.

Many of us then followed the innovative Jo Holden and her two tiptrucks of bagged paper symbolic ‘toxic waste’ to the gates at the Leewood Facility, where they were piled up to the chant of ’We don’t want your toxic waste’, amongst others. Narrabri CSG will be SEVEN times as salty as that from the Queensland gasfields.

There is NO solution for dealing with the vast amounts of this toxic material: it is not ‘merely’ salt that comes up from the coal seams in the water that must be extracted to release the pressure and let the gas flow. Radioactive elements are just some of the naturally occurring contaminants.

(Note: fracking is not currently the proposed method of extraction here.)

This event was very well organised; herding cats is nothing to what they pulled off this weekend with such numbers.

The People from the Plains were grateful for the outside support shown here; farms are large and scattered over great distances. They need us to keep up the passion felt this weekend and the pressure to say NO to the Narrabri project, which would be just the first of the Santos PEL empire.

Santos, this is only the start of the uprising of sane people all over the country who know the CSG industry must not be allowed to get away in NSW as it did in Queensland. The risks to water and health are proven, they have no waste disposal solution… and we neither need nor want it!

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We’ve had rain, and the rocks in my back yard path are a bit slippery. But not slimy with weed, so this rock caught my eye.

And then I saw that it had back legs. A tortoise; but was it digging in or out? Right next to a cement slab didn’t seem a smart choice either way.

Of course I ran for the camera, hoping it would still be there. I tiptoed around the front of it and knelt down. The small head with that distinctive pointy nose turned slightly towards me and one bright beady eye summed me up.

‘Better retreat’ was the decision. Not wanting to disturb its plans, I left it alone, but it was nowhere to be seen later. From the weed on its shell I suspect it had walked up from the wetlands below the yard.

I hope it found a suitable spot in my yard… and felt safe. Maybe I need a sign ‘All wildlife welcome’?

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As at my last two homes, I see a lot of wildlife just from my decks and verandahs, perhaps because I choose homes that are part eyrie.

Not having heard kookaburras here yet, I was delighted to see this one last evening, just metres away from my side verandah. Such a handsome fellow!

Next day, I heard the unmistakable continual rusty sawing of a young Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo. Rushing out to that same verandah, I spotted him, large and loud, carrying on as only a baby magpie can beat.

This equally handsome fellow was in a Silky Oak, but where was the parent? Not in the same tree…

No, but near enough, busy in a Casuarina, ignoring the whining young. I am so happy that these familiar avian faces are appearing in my new place, making me feel more at home with each visit.

But this place is all about trees; even the clothesline is a pulley system off the high back deck, where I send my washing out into the air space between trees… past the reach of the yellow droppings of birds in the Silky Oak.

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There have been no posts for a while as I’ve been immersed in the chaos of moving house again.

This time — the absolute last! — it was to a rural town, where I share my block with this Tawny Frogmouth, one of my favourite birds.

A quiet, retiring, serenely beautiful bird, with ‘eyelashes’ to envy. Their roosting habit is often described as ‘cryptic’, mimicking broken branches; this one is easier than usual to spot, being on its nest.

I am still waiting to hear its distinctive, if unmusical, call.

And with a few dozen Rainbow Lorikeets – not quiet. In fact they are known as ‘a noisy conspicuous bird’, whose ‘shrill screech and sharp chattering’ leave no doubt as to their presence

They are currently feeding on/decimating a big Queensland Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) tree that is far too close to my house, so it will not be there for much longer.

(The Frogmouth’s She Oak is safe.)

Before that they were busy on a red bottlebrush tree out the front. They are the only Lorikeet with a blue head, striking against the red beak and above the orange, yellow and red bands and splashes on the predominantly green body.

One of the reasons why I will see lots of birds here is that my large block is edged on two sides by a forested wetlands reserve. I know I won’t see wallabies but have resigned myself to that wonderful Mountain stage of my life being past.

But here the rain still falls and works with the early morning sun to make diamonds to turn my mundane clothesline into regimented linear splendour. Despite the culture shock of road traffic on one side, I remain blessed.

This drawing was meant for Chapter 5, ‘Living for Weekends’, of The Woman on the Mountain.

We’d moved there into the still very basic cabin, and I’d taken the writing work from my old design firm…

In a way it’s as if I remained part of the company even after I’d left and moved back here for good. They used to call me ‘our woman on the mountain’, as one says ‘our man in New York’, although the connotations of gumleaves and gumboots were probably less impressive.

They had to tolerate a long and turbulent teething period in those pre-email communication days. We were using a program called Carbon Copy (I think) where my computer linked to theirs via a primitive modem. I’d try to get the modem to work on my dreadful phone line, waiting for that magic sound, the electronic gargle of a successful connection. Someone had to sit at a computer at their end to receive it, and stay there to respond, even if it was unbelievably slow. I’d be sitting here trying to get it through, never sure if the person down there had given up, or wandered off to make a coffee or take a phone call. To find out, I’d have to disconnect and ring them, as I only had one line. Then we’d have to start all over again. Hair-tearingly not ideal.

I think that was when I first discovered the release to be derived from screaming Charlie Brown one-liners — ‘A-a-a-a-rgh!’ — from the verandah.

… But at least I was living and working here, even if conditions weren’t ideal. … I’d be shivering at my desk at the other end of the cabin from the combustion stove. Working on the computer, I’d be wearing fingerless gloves, beanie, thick socks and boots, tights, leggings, long woollen skirt, singlet, skivvy, woollen jumper, vest, cardigan and shawl, with a rug over my knees. Dead elegant — and cold. I cursed again the uninsulated roof.’

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

In the Nymboida-Binderay National Park, the water’s power is strong; visitors are warned of it. White-water kayakers take off from here at Platypus Flat. I stay on shore — deal with a flat tyre — and simply enjoy the sound of the water.

The current-combed trees show the force of the Nymboida at times, but not now, as the whole area is in drought, even the Dorrigo Plateau where these waters arise. The rocks bear witness, with the white line showing where the water level used to be for so long.

In the Cathedral Rocks National Park, at about 1200–1500 metres, there is no rushing water, the rocks are still and quiet… and awe-inspiring. I stay at Native Dog Camp.

On the nearby short walk to Warrigal (aka Dingo/Native Dog) Rocks I see enough rocks to lift my spirits. Balanced or brooding, they are always decorated with their dependent lichens and mosses, varied according to degree of shelter and sun exposure.

It can snow here — there are snow gums and snow grass. Rocks rule more than trees.

They lead to an upland swamp and tiny creek… where the dingoes come to drink … before circling back through more mighty boulders (tors) stacked or slumbering.

Dare I walk between these two? Might it decide to back up just a wee bit more as I do?

Next day I choose to walk to the more distant and far higher pile called Woolpack Rocks, an 8 kilometre round trip.

Again I cross a totally different world of swamp and low vegetation. In this climate plants protect their precious moisture with thin, spiky or leathery leaves. The occasional flash of gold from a tall skinny wattle or the threaded circles of juvenile leaves on a eucalypt are almost a lush surprise.

Then the path leads uphill, past the prehistoric shapes and wonders of banksias short and tall, and bushes of the rare and threatened Styphelia perileuca, unique to a small area here in the Cathedral Rocks National Park.

I pass even more fantastically and seemingly precariously arranged rocks. I am quiet; what might wake this mother whale and her baby?

The track winds up through taller trees and around to a deep green southern gully of tree ferns and rock orchids before reaching the dizzy heights of the destination rock pile.

Whoever named the collection up here had no imagination. Very few look like wool packs… and I am truly not even sure if they are inanimate. I have probably read too many Patricia Wrightson’s magical children’s books, like ‘The Nargun and the Stars’, which have strong affiliations with Aboriginal stories.

As at Hanging Rock, one could lose the narrow sandy path between these monsters. It is not our world up here.

.

I love rocks. I can admire the grandeur of large scale features like this Natural Arch on the Headland Walk at Crowdy Bay National Park, but it’s the close-up details that attract me most.

That small group of rocks was closest to my camp. It is amazingly varied, as I’ll show you.

They are sharp and savage rocks, spelling shipwreck. But beyond the wild sea edge barrier there is smoothness and sensuality and small havens of seawater and life.

They remind me of certain Aboriginal paintings, with the subtle pink and ochre colours and the swirling and linking around central features.

Millions of barnacles, able to close their ‘mouths’ to avoid dehydration when exposed at low tide like this.

Fragile sea lettuce, sheltering with sea worms (Galeolaria, from schoolhood memory) in their self made ‘shell’casings and more barnacles

As I watch the gentle outflow of tide and the patterns itmakes in sand, I consider the far from gentle shaping of these rocks by the sea over eons. The power of water!

My next two camps are also rock-rich but far different…

Woman on the move

August 21, 2017
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As you know, I love sunrises. This clearly not at my place. Actually, I don’t have a ‘place’ right now. For the next month I am homeless! The Woman is on the move, national park hopping to re-connect with nature, before I have to live in a house… in a town (!) … but with […]

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Al fresco loo

July 26, 2017

The sun on your knees, a view of birds and bush… who’d want an indoor loo? This sketch and extract is from The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 14, ‘The Simple Life’. ‘Contrary to popular mythology, the simple life is not found in the country but in the city, where you simply pay your bills […]

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The water word is out

July 17, 2017
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After the White-faced Heron staking a claim on my pond, the word seems to have got out to other water birds that the pond is here and the surrounding lawn is soggy enough to easily poke a long waterbird beak into. A small troupe of iridescent Straw-necked Ibis were here the other day, strutting and […]

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Woman at work

July 10, 2017

This drawing was meant for Chapter 12 of The Woman the Mountain, ‘While the woman’s away…’ which is mainly about the wildlife moving in and taking over when I wasn’t there. Here’s the relevant extract about one of the ultimately futile attempts to keep them out… When the rain finally stopped, I began fortifying the […]

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