Wednesday, April 30, 2008


How to get a frog in your trousers

It's not every day that you find a frog in your trousers. Indeed, some might say that they've never had one at all. It was something of a surprise to me, let me tell you. Would you like to know how I found a frog in my trousers? Are you sitting comfortably? Actually, I don't care how you're sitting, read my blog in whatever position you want. I'll begin however you are.

ANZAC weekend, tempting as it may be, isn't a particularly good time to go on a camping trip, especially not when it coincides with the end of the school holidays. Thus went our reasoning, so we didn't. Instead, the urge to leave the benighted, expensive, noisy city was channelled into a daytrip to Wiseman's Ferry, of which I have written before (there's a few pics of the last trip on my flickr page, by the way). I am pleased to report that Deschamps Delights continue to stock a fine range of pickles, and serve an excellent Devonshire tea. But clearly, I digress. Which I reserve the right to do, and if you don't like it you can go find a more linear blogger. Where was I? Oh yes, convict stoneworks.

You may, if you're feeling exceptionally masochistic, walk from Sydney to Newcastle by way of the Great North Walk. This follows, in places, the original overland route from Sydney to Newcastle, from before the time when the inevitable march of progress and the invention of both tarmac and the Otto cycle engine bought the people the F3 freeway. In the vicinity of Wiseman's Ferry it finds the luxury of not one but two convict-era (no, not Howard, the original settlers) tracks to follow. The day-tripper is thus able to avail themselves of the unusual luxury of a loop track, which starts about half a kilometre left of the ferry, goes up the hill to Finches Line, and comes back down about two kilometres down the road after considerable meanderings.

The first, uphill stretch of this track is a startling example of the 19th-century road-builders craft, and for once I am not being facetious, sarcastic, or even slightly silly. Admittedly, they were using convict labour, which was pretty cheap, but you have to hand it to those chappies: when they decided to build a road they Built A Road. There were no temporary measures. This particular bit of civil engineering skirts the side of a rock face one step removed from being a sheer cliff. Fitted stone blocks cut from said cliff face brace the outer side up to the width of a proper horse-and-cart track (they would have been pretty tired horses by the time they got to the top, mind you). Fancy diving-underground drains run under the road from the cliff side and drain out of buttresses on the outside, and thence down lined channels away from the foundations. Switchbacks are done in a proper curve of the wall, with natural watercourses run under the road and carried clear of the foundations on a lipped drain. All of this was built from stone quarried on the spot, faced up square and dry-fitted. We're talking serious stuff here, as testified to by the fact that it's still standing and usable 180 years later. Even more startling, they got the bulk of it done in about six months. Those convicts obviously didn't get much time off, the poor bastards.

Unfortunately for their industry, that inland track never really took off as a way to get from Sydney to Newcastle. Presumably that's why the original road is still there, rather than being buried under disintegrating tarmac. This is all to the good if you want to go for a walk in the bush with a nice view over the Hawkesbury. There was a lyrebird in the bush, giving his all. If you're not familiar with the talents of a male lyrebird when he's after a mate, I'd recommend a trip to YouTube; they're probably the most extraordinary mimics in the animal kingdom. This particular one was doing a fine line in native bird calls: kookaburras, whip birds, currawongs, a smattering of galah, you name it, he was spinning the disk.

The next diversion of a zoological nature was a big ant-hill. Going bush-walking with biologists tends to be full of zoological and botanical diversions, by the way. Australian ant-hills are kind of interesting most of the time. They're not particularly tall, but the ants cover them in different coloured stones depending on what the weather's doing: white on sunny days, dark-coloured on cloudy days. The attraction of this particular nest was that it was sending its winged reproductive offspring off to reproduce or die trying. Attempting to get some decent close-up photos of this event, I rather offended the ants. Australian ants, even in repose, tend to be a confronting if you're accustomed to the insects of more temperate climes. These particular specimens were the wrong side of a centimetre long, with jaws to rather more than match. I submit that most people would be somewhat discomfited to have such beasties swarming up their legs en masse. Eventually, dear reader, I was able to persuade most of them to go elsewhere. I'll leave my capering, leg-shaking and jeans-flicking up to your imagination, I think. Unfortunately they rather had their revenge on me for wasting ant time. They sprayed me with general-purpose attack-this-guy pheromone as they went about their work, and every other line of ants we passed made a beeline for my legs. I hadn't realised just how many ants were along the side of that hill, until that point. Most of them big.

Eventually, order was restored. We continued our loop, along a section that hadn't been subject to the tender ministrations of a British colonial-era roading engineer. The only Australian in our little party almost stepped on a legless reptile (the exact provenance of which is still open to debate: I thought it had external ears, which would make it a legless lizard, but it also had a very short tail, which is more of a snakey characteristic). Orchids were spotted. Apples were eaten. Views were admired. More steps than were cared to be counted were executed in a downwards direction following natural stratigraphic features underlying the the topography of the region, SIR! Ahem. The rather unfortunate ending to this loop track is along the side of a thoroughly 21st-century stretch of road, complete with 21st-century dickheads unfamiliar with the function of the pedal to the left of the accelerator.

Pausing at the ferry ramp to take in the scenery, I noticed yet another example of the local insect life attached to the hem of my trousers. The ant pheromones were obviously still hard at work. This particular one was some sort of wasp, so I chose to flick it off with circumspection. As I was accomplishing this task, I felt something cold and wet against my calf. Anyone who's spent any time in the Australian bush will be thinking "leech" about now. That was certainly my thought, that's why I was shaking my leg with some vigour, and no doubt why the frog fell out and hopped away in such a hurry. I still have no idea how it got there.

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