Bush Kids

Children and Nature

Category Archives: Bush Trips

Getting out there whatever the obstacles….

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One of the things I had forgotten about living ‘up north’ is just how limiting the intense heat can be. The mild summer temperatures of our home in south eastern Australia are compatible with outdoor activities at virtually any time of year, even though the bitter Winters require some getting used to. Here in the tropics, with temperatures of unvarying stinking heat for 6 months of the year, and the added bonus of biting creatures at every turn, outdoor adventures can be quite a challenge.

For us, this stint of living in a city and not having our own bush on our very doorstep has increased the importance to get out adventuring in wild places, whatever the weather. Being in the bush is a priority for us as a family, and, for each of us in our own way, fundamental to our wellbeing.

Much of the bush in the Tropics is completely inaccessible at this time of year; roads are cut off or impassable, the country is damp and boggy, mozzies are everywhere, and higher water levels in the watercourses  mean that saltwater crocs could be anywhere. It is so hot, so access to swimming holes is essential. But the high likelihood of sharing the water with a ranging saltie narrows the options even further. It also means that the few safe waterholes within easy reach of town can be very busy, and we don’t like to share with crowds of people if we can help it.

There have been other obstacles too. We’ve been hit hard by illnesses as our immune systems adjust to the different range of bugs of our new environment. We seem to have had everything from constant ear infections (from all the swimming and moist humid conditions) to low level pneumonia and chicken pox. I broke a rib in two places and our car was stolen. Our run of misfortunes seemed to go on and on. This made it even harder to get some traction on our mission to get out of town.

Determined to overcome these obstacles, we have persevered. Finding a means of getting out exploring is absolutely imperative for us. In spite of broken ribs and pox-covered kids, we sought out a few likely croc-free places higher up watercourses; places often requiring a journey of several hundred kilometres and a hot exposed hike to get into. But the effort is always worth it. Our time spent swimming in shady creeks or jumping into white water rapids was restorative and greatly needed, a salve to all the demands of the last few months.

Here are some of our discoveries:Spectacular waterfalls from the top of the escarpment
Tiered pools to swim in, and rapids to shoot down
Paperbark boats to race downstream
Shallow creeks to wade along looking for fish to catch in our netsCascading holes of deep emerald for snorkelling

Rocks fit for mermaids

Quiet calming places to spend the day in, reading and swimming, eating cake and recovering.

Far away islands and life in far away places

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A stint of fieldwork recently took me up north for a short stay on Mornington Island, the largest of the Wellesley islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is a long trip to reach the islands, the last leg of which involves hopping from community to community aboard the mail plane from Mt Isa. The small plane shudders and bumps its way through the thermals above a landscape of ocean, islands, and rivers snaking their way over expansive coastal mudflats. The intricate topographical patterns of land and water seen from above are never more impressive than in the Gulf, yet flying in small planes is not something I relish and I am always glad to set foot on the runway.

The journey was familiar – many years ago I lived in one of those communities and worked with the Indigenous groups of the Gulf on their claims to land and sea. In the wet season we were cut off from the rest of the world for months, and the only way in and out for people and supplies was by air (or boat).

Living in exceedingly remote parts of the world suits me. I have always been attracted to wild places, to small scatterings of human presence amongst the vastness of nature, or to frontier settlements with larger than life characters and a life vastly different from the mainstream. In these places the needs, forms and rhythms of daily life are determined by something much larger than the individual, and the usual concerns of material life seem insignificant. The vastness seems to open you up, to strip away the trimmings and lay things bare. It makes the senses come alive in a way that is simply not possible in the city. It forces a reliance on your own personal resources, and on the small community around you.

And yet there are aspects of life in remote places that can be tough. Conditions can be harsh, and fitting in in a small place can be a challenge. Living in the bush means the usual myriad of social opportunities, facilities, and conveniences of urban life are simply not available. It is often a long time between a latte or a fresh vegetable or a newspaper. Getting to the nearest town may involve a hard drive of hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.

In these remote places many would expect to feel loneliness or a sense of deprivation because of the lack of all these things. And yet, my experience has been one of abundance – of a landscape filled with with stories, history and so much life, and of connectedness – to people and to country and to community.

Have you lived in a remote place before? Did you enjoy the challenges of being a long way from the rest of the world?
Gulf 5Makeshift poles for fishing nets at low tide

Untangling a drag net
In the late dry season there is a constant wind which rattles the pandanas fronds and makes for pleasant sleeping at night
A flock of red-tailed black cockatoos at sunset
Tracks across the sand dunes

Simple Camping

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After four weeks of being able to camp almost wherever we liked, with no one else around, in places of incredible natural beauty, it was a bit of a shock to hit the Queensland coast. The density of development along much of the coastline made it much more difficult to find campsites which fit our criteria – where we have our own space in the bush, are able to have a fire for cooking and warmth, and not be corralled into tiny sites on concrete slabs next to lines and lines of motorhomes, caravans, camper trailers and more.

Whilst in Cairns, we had our first introduction to staying in a major caravan park. We requested the most ‘bushy’ sites available: and were fortunately dispatched to the very far corner of the park where the few unpowered grassed sites were set apart. The initial cries of ‘what! we can’t have a fire!!!!!’ died away when the kids set eyes on the facilities on offer: at least 3 pools, waterparks, jumping pillows, playgrounds, go-karts, movies and on and on – and for a few days we just focussed on the ‘fun’ part of it for the kids. After weeks in the bush and some hot dusty travelling across from the Gulf, we let ourselves enjoy splashing about in the pools.

What we didn’t enjoy was the proximity to all this over-consumption – do people really need all this gear? It seemed unbelievable that people travel/camp with and are so dependent on all these ‘things’, much of it duplicating the material environment of their homes. Everywhere we looked campsites were totally taken up with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment; at night people sat squashed around their kitchenettes plugged in to various televisions and gadgets; in the toilet blocks women applied cosmetics and hair straighteners. We must have been the only ‘campers’ who didn’t have a fridge, a sink with running water, a GPS or any of the other multitude of items surrounding us.

We also had a terrible experience in a national park campground of having to camp way too close to undesirable types. This was a night from hell – doof doof music, heavy drinking (and consumption of other substances), and all-night partying, yelling and shrieking from several groups of our neighbouring campers (who had joined forces by this stage) culminated in the explosion of a gas-bottle at 2.30am and the beginnings of a grass fire. Compelled to camp almost toe-to-toe with the undesirables made it much much worse. The camping area was another example of bad parks landscape design – something we have encountered too often and choose mostly to avoid, if we can. Instead of simple, integrated camping along the banks of the river, the campground was laid out around a massive toilet block, in a cattle-yard type grid defined by many balustrades and paving. There were so many mozzies around the toilet block at night, attracted by the bright, permanently on lights, that the children couldn’t even get near a toilet without being covered with bites. There was no shade and no privacy. Extensively developed roads, picnic areas and parking took up the best of the camping spots along the river.

These experiences reaffirmed our commitment to simplicity in our approach to camping. We believe it is this simplicity, in our choices of gear and in the way we camp, which enables us to more closely connect to and leave less of a footprint on the environment we are in.

In spite of all this over-development, once we hit the road again we were able, with some serious searching, to locate a few pockets of free camping in beautiful bushy spots, where our minds could be quietened by the deeply primitive act of staring into the flames of our campfire at night.

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Burketown

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The invitation to attend the Carpentaria Land Council’s 30th birthday celebrations in Burketown was the catalyst for this road trip. Revisiting Burketown (where I lived for four years and worked with Indigenous groups on their claims to land) with the kids in tow was bound to be an adventure.

Burketown (Moungibi) is a town like no other, a town which sits between the dusty salt flats which extend north to the coast, and the black soil plains on every other side. In the dry it is dusty and hot and exposed, and in the wet season it is transformed by sheets of water, flooded saltwater rivers and billowing expanses of high grass. For months it is cut off from the rest of the world. The closest regional centre, Mt Isa, is a hard drive of 500kms away.

It is a town with a scarred history, one that has found its way into the toughness which characterises the people of the town today. The areas traditional owners, the Gangalidda, were subjected to violations of all kinds, from displacement to missionaries to massacres. The ‘Gulf plague’ wiped out most of the inhabitants in the 1860’s, followed closely by two cyclones in succession.

Burketown is a town where spectacular conflicts and clashes are part of daily life, a town where the constancy of the battles fought has given rise to generations of warriors.

In spite, or maybe because of all this, Burketown today is a thriving remote community – whilst it also serves a centre for the area’s cattle stations, barramundi tourism, and Shire municipal facilities, it is as HQ for the regions Indigenous politics that it is most notable. Led by high-profile activist (my old boss) Murrandoo Yanner, who is widely referred to as an ‘Indigenous firebrand’, the Land Council has spearheaded major achievements in Indigenous rights on a local and national scale.

For the kids, visiting Burketown offered an oversupply of new experiences, from meeting Murrandoo and other old friends, to watching the saddle bronc and bull ride at the night rodeo. They danced the night away at the concert alongside ringers and locals, and hung out with the Gangalidda Rangers as they prepared dugong, bush turkey (plains bustard), and turtle for a bush tucker feast. They spotted 5 metre saltwater crocs along the Albert River from a friend’s boat and had their first taste of local barramundi. The watched the dancers from Mornington Island perform traditional dances telling the Dreamtime stories of the land and its creatures, and, on our last morning at sunrise, they saw the incredible rolling wave-like cloud formation known as the ‘morning glory’ – a rare meteorological meeting of air currents and pressure systems and one of a few places in the world this formation can be seen.

For me, the return visit wasn’t long enough to spend much quality time with old friends. Yet everyone I had known, from fishermen to station folk to Indigenous families I had worked with closely, seemed so very glad that I had made the effort to come back and even happier to meet the children.

Burketown has certainly made a big impression on the kids; another meaningful connection established to place and people during this epic trip.

Honouring connections to place

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The country north of Mt Isa and south of the Gulf of Carpentaria is mostly black soil plains. The country is harsh, exposed and blisteringly hot. The limestone plateau which rises in the western parts, though, contains numerous freshwater springs which in turn give rise to permanent river systems: Lawn Hill Creek, the Gregory River and its tributaries, and the O’Shannassey. These emerald corridors of freshwater are home to an incredible array of riverine vegetation: spiky pandanas, tall Leichhardt trees, figs, cabbage palms, ghost gums and paperbarks, and lower down, ferns, bulrushes and water lilies. Birdlife and aquatic creatures are abundant, and sitting quietly on the edges we observed constantly changing parades of life, both within and around the water. At night we caught cherapin (huge freshwater yabbies) and shone our torches on the passing parade of fish, harmless file snakes, turtles and more.

Having worked extensively throughout this country with Waanyi traditional owners of the area, we were fortunate to be able to camp in and visit places that few others ever see. Our camp on the banks of the river in a spot known only to insiders was hands-down our favourite camp of our trip. Upstream a series of cascades flowed towards the quieter water adjacent to our camp, which had both shallow and deeper sections to cater perfectly to the varying swimming abilities of the kids, and downstream the river junctioned with a smaller side creek and opened up into a beautiful broader hole.

We swam all day, coming out only when we needed food or to toast ourselves in the sunshine before diving into the emerald waters once more. The kids expended so much energy they all ate adult-sized meals and submitted easily each night to deep slumbers in their swags.

We stayed here for a week – longer than any other place on our entire trip, and there was time for fishing, baking damper, colouring in, birdwatching and exploring up and down the river. We ventured up to the station homestead to visit friends, returning laden with freshly baked anzac biscuits, station beef, and armfuls of fresh garden produce, including even red papaya! We also visited nearby Lawn Hill Gorge, and paddled in canoes up the incredible gorge to swim in the falls amongst the turtles and abundant fish.

There is no doubt that this country has found its way into the hearts of our children, and that the connection I have to the places and people here will continue with them. It makes those thousands of kilometres of travelling so worth while. Honouring my connections with place has become, for me, one of the most important ways of fostering my own children’s attachment to nature. And you don’t necessarily have to travel thousands of kilometres to do it: many of the strongest ties we have ourselves can be found in the natural environment around our home, or at places nearby. You just have to get out there – together.

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Road Trip: Red Desert

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Big red sand dunes and wide open horizons. A camp on a dried out clay pan between the dune ridges, and a mulga fire – the best firewood in the country which burns long and hot and slow. And a desert night sky – of unparalleled starry brilliance. Being back in the desert triggers pure joy for me, and how I love sharing all this with my children, and seeing them learn to love the desert too.

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Road Trip: Desert Waters

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The Coopers Creek is a long way from anywhere – more or less in the centre of the Australian continent. Surrounded on all sides by relentless sand dunes or rock-strewn gibber plains, the Coopers is no conventional watercourse – something which makes it all the more remarkable and oasis-like. With a massive catchment area in the Queensland Channel Country, it is fed by rain which falls thousands of kilometres away and drains via a myriad of arterial channels into the inland. The Coopers Creek is really a series of changing billabongs. When it flows, the system fills the channels, waterholes and swamps of desert, and in exceptional years, disgorges along the channels into the salt lakes of Lake Eyre. When it does not flow, all but a few permanent waterholes are reduced to empty channels and muddy holes. It is a place of extremes – of bounteous floods and protracted droughts – an icon of the ‘boom and bust’ cycles which characterise much of our dry interior.

These few permanent waterholes are the most reliable water source for many hundreds of kilometres, and as a result, they are teeming with life. Our camp beneath red gums and coolibahs by the waters edge became a raucous cacophony every evening as the trees filled with cockatoos, parrots and other birds. We watched waterbirds of innumerable types glide past. We fished for yellow belly and sooty grunter, and dug mussels out of the mud with our toes. There were wallabies at dusk drinking from the waters edge, and dingo tracks in the sand each morning.

With some big days of travelling behind us, we felt little urge to explore beyond little forays along the billabong in the new blow-up birthday boat. We swam, fished and paddled in the cool water. We ate simple meals of fish and damper. We talked a lot about the events of the Burke and Wills expedition, and what led them to perish here, in a place of such abundance.

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# Catching his own fish was a massive rush for Cassidy.

# The blow-up boat was great for floating along the waters.

# Billabong boy.

# Sooty grunter and damper on the coals.

# Grubby twins.

# Our very simple canvas bush shower strung from a coolibah tree and filled with water warmed on the fire.

# We found these freshwater mussels by squelching about in the sticky mud and feeling them with our toes.

# A monument commemorating the place at which the explorer Wills spent his final, exhausted days.