Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wollstonecraft Station

Things I like about Sydney No. 20: Wollstonecraft Station

We are going on a walk again, you, Sniff and I. This time it's only a short walk, across the creek to our local station, Wollstonecraft, from where we can be whizzed into town in less than fifteen minutes.

Perhaps we'll start by admiring the autumn flowers popping up in our driveway - some of them, like the red ones, there one day, gone the next; others resolutely flowering for weeks on end. We need to grab this opportunity however as they will all have disappeared by the weekend. Our neighbours (who I thought quite pleasant until now) have complained to our estate agents that we have not been keeping up our side of the drive. Harumph! Firstly, it would have been nice to have been told that it was our responsibility to do so and secondly, couldn't they simply have asked us to tidy it directly? In the spirit of neighbourliness I have swallowed my rage and engaged the services of the wonderfully named Con to come and hack away at the overgrowth on Saturday. Con is very Australian. I need a translator when he speaks. He gardens without socks with a kind of blithe machismo but then complains bitterly when he's bitten by red ants. He should beware the funnel-web spiders - I've spotted their lairs and enjoy gingerly placing leaves over their tunnel entrances, leaves which are silently and secretively moved, spider-fashion, by the next time I pass...

Once past the drive we soon get to a footbridge over the creek, Beencke's Bridge, so-named after a Herr Beencke from Hamburg, born in 1852, who built the first shop here in Greenwich and many of the early houses. In 1906 he built a wooden trestle bridge on this spot to enable us to cross Berry's Creek (which no doubt was much wider and more treacherous in those days) for the steep sounding sum of £50.

Unfortunately, this has now been replaced by an infinitely uglier bridge built in 1964, the year I was born. No doubt this cost a lot more money, involved a lot more people, and was imagined to be a thing of beauty...Sometimes, no mostly actually,  I wish I had been born in 1852....

From Beencke's Bridge you could stop and look down through some magnificent, enormous tree ferns to the creek below if it wasn't for the fact that Sniff always bounds across it like a hound possessed.

From here it is but a hop skip and a jump to the station past some towering conifers and their attendant jabbering kookaburras. There is a small grass sward with a bench in its centre and this part is called Smoothey Park. I haven't been able to find out why but Australians seem to be very, very keen on naming things: every second step you seem to find yourself in a newly-named area. The smallest patch of green is called So and So Reserve, the tiniest beachhead Such and Such Point. There's a new suburb every second. In fact, now we're no longer in Greenwich we're in Wollstonecraft. After all folks, we've crossed a bridge...

I particularly like Wollstonecraft station because it is stuck in a charming time-warp. It looks completely provincial despite being only fifteen minutes or less from Circular Quay and the Opera House. There are no MacDonalds and WH Smiths here. Oh no. Everything is run by local independent shopkeepers and the station is manned by friendly eccentrics. One of these, a tall man of over six feet who seems slightly simple-minded, invariably asks whether he can pat the dog and then seems surprised when his formidable physical presence looming over him causes Sniff to quickly scarper.

This is Max. Max runs one of the two shops at Wollstonecraft Station (his is the larger of the two). He's always smiling and cheerful and refuses to sell you packets of muffins if there's the smallest tear in the wrapping...

His rival, on the other side of the tracks, is a diminutive Chinese women who sits behind a miniscule counter in her tiny shop beaming daily. Despite her apparent cheerfulness, I was too scared to ask to take her photo and she didn't look like someone who would understand the word 'blog'. I'm not sure that I really understand the word 'blog'...

Next to Max's shop is a small cafe which I have yet to venture into (after all, I'm usually off into town) but which we will investigate one of these days...Sniff inevitably sniffs it.

And that's it. Wollstonecraft station in a nutshell. There are two platforms - one going south into town, one going north to...oh, hell, frankly who cares where! So all you have to do now is come and visit - you know you want to. We're on the North Shore Line, marked in YELLOW on your map. Get on at either Central, Town Hall, Wynyard...It couldn't be easier. Sniff and I are waiting for you on the platform now...

PS If anyone has seen Daniel can they please send him home, preferably loaded with presents.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The edible plants of the Gadyan Track

Things I like about Sydney No. 19: the edible plants of the Gadyan Track.

Daniel is marooned in Amsterdam thanks to the belchings of Eyjafjallajökull. He was previously stranded in Berlin but managed to hop on a train to the Netherlands (cue Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express or even better go here and watch the grainy video - I am irrationally jealous of that journey. It should have been me speeding across Europe by train, preferably wearing a fur-collared overcoat and a smart hat, smoking continuously whilst looking enigmatically out of the window thinking trans-European thoughts. I trust that's exactly how Daniel did it...

He's now stuck in Amsterdam for another ten days or so before being allowed to come home by the powers that know about ash - which delay got me thinking: what if the other volcano blows? What if this becomes a permanent situation? What if we all have to stay put where we are now for ever? What if this heralds the end of inter-continental communication?  What if Australia drifts off into perpetual isolation?

There will be no more Marmite!!!!!!!!!!!!

No more Rose's English Marmalade, or Hellmann's mayonnaise. No more Fortnum and Mason's Finest Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe. No more New Zealand lamb or Italian prosciutto or Melton Mowbray pork pies. No more Indian lime pickles or Puccini chocolates or Stollen or Panettone. No Camembert, no Roquefort, no Jarlsberg...

No no no no no! No foreign muck any more. Nothing but authentic Australian tucker from now on. There'll be kangaroo steak nightly,  relieved only by the appearance of a bit of beer-battered barramundi on Fridays. I'll be having Vegemite on my damper for lunch with a can of VB as my amber fluid. I'll be having snags on endless barbies, yabbies, muddies and a couple of lobbies with some coldies, sammies to go with some billy tea in my can, lammingtons, tim tams, pavlovas and chokkies for afters. Oh, it'll be one long party! And you're not invited. Because you're over THERE, in Europe, for ever and ever, Amen.

Only today however I learned that there are many delicious things out there in the bush that we can begin to eat, if only we listen to the wisdom of our elders and betters, the Cammeraygal.

The Cammeraygal were the original indigenous keepers of Berry Island and their name for the path along which Sniff and I daily perambulate (now the foxes have all been killed we've been allowed back) is the Gadyan track. And upon the Gadyan track are the following three plants which we can eat along with that kangaroo steak...

Firstly, a geebung. Brilliant name. A geebung. This particular edible geebung is called Persoonia Levis.

The edible part is apparently its small green fruit but as a) there was no fruit and b) I wasn't entirely sure this was the right plant I haven't tried it yet. The description says it has broad bright green leaves (check) and black flaky bark (check) and that you can eat the fruit raw. So when I see it fruiting I shall give it a go...I'm thinking Geebung Marmalade or perhaps a Geebung paste to liven up the godawful cheese that passes as cheddar over here.

The next edible plant along the Gadyan track doesn't appear to be quite so appetising. It's a distinctly inedible looking grass or rush plant called Lomandra longifolia.

I don't really look at this and think, hmmm, must cook up a bit of that to go with my roo but I am willing to give it a go. You can eat the flowers (presumably before they dry up and dessicate like the ones above) as well as the 'succulent' leaf bases and you can also grind up the seeds to make damper - a traditional Australian soda bread prepared by swagmen and drovers when on their epic solitary journeys across the middle of this uncompromising continent.

Finally, the most appetising looking plant of the three is the Coast Banksia. The magnificent flowers of banksias can be sucked for nectar or soaked in water to make a sweet drink - I'm thinking of starting a range of Cooper's Cordials...

Once more I wasn't sure if this was exactly the right plant and, just in case it happened to be the one type of banksia that drops you dead with one sip of its juice, I passed it by without drinking from those jaunty yellow cups.

So there we have it. Authentic Australian tucker to go with our kangaroo steak. I can't help thinking however that if Sniff and I had been walking the Gadyan track back in Cammeraygal times there would have been a fair chance that we would have ended up as that evening's steak ourselves with these plants serving as a couple of side dishes or as a bit of fancy garnish...Needless to say the reality is that the poor Cammeraygal of the North Shore are no more, entirely scattered, wiped out, disappeared. As early as 1860 it was recorded they were already rare visitors to their original homeland, many massacred or killed by diseases introduced by us, the colonisers.

On that cheerful note we'll have a completely gratuitous picture of a gum tree (inedible as far as I know):

You may like to know that the Powerful Owl is out there hooting tonight accompanied by the clicking of a myriad of marsh frogs. I like to think that they are carefully watching over me until my banished boyfriend returns from distant climes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Easter Bilby

Things I like about Sydney No. 18: the Easter Bilby.

Despite the fact that Australia has an appalling record when it comes to preventing extinctions - more mammals have become extinct here than on any other continent in the world - things seem to be looking up for one endangered species, and it's entirely thanks to chocolate...

Back home in London we have the Easter Bunny, the Easter Chick, the Easter Egg but here in Sydney, come Easter Sunday, it's three cheers for the Easter Bilby. Yes, the bilby - an insignificant-looking rat-like marsupial which is nevertheless worming its way into the hearts of a nation (we're talking an increasingly plump nation mind you) by becoming a national symbol for Easter.

Here are some beribboned and boxed bilbies in shiny plastic (you can't save everything at once it seems):

We have here (apart from Daniel obviously) two different Easter Bilbies by two different chocolate companies: Haigh's (who claim to have been there first with the Bilby idea) and Darrell Lee. Not being Australian I don't have any feeling about either chocolate company but Daniel was very sniffy about his Darrell Lea Bilby so they are obviously the downmarket alternative (perhaps like Cadburys is to Thorntons). Ah well, chocolate snobbery, can't be doing with it, chocolate gives me migraines anyway.

Daniel is also holding a chocolate Murray Cod, which is another vulnerable species now enshrined in foil ("Part proceeds from the sale of this item help the work of Healthy Rivers Australia"). In so-called real life the Murray Cod is enormous, reaching up to 1.8 metres long and living for a hundred years. Which is more than you can say for the average Australian bingeing on Easter chocolate....

Our Bilbies began like this:

And now look like this:

which I think is a very apt metaphor for their current state in the wild.

The only other time I have heard about a Bilby is through Martin, Daniel's brother, who found a Bilby in his garden in Adelaide last year. But it was, unfortunately, already dead. He picked it up and put it in the rubbish bin along with all his other rubbish but then, on reflection, felt terrible that he'd put an endangered species in the trash and spent several sleepless nights wondering whether he should rather have scooped it up and taken it to the nearest natural history museum or at least to a vet or anywhere really rather than putting it in with the rubbish. Me, I would have nipped off with that Bilby to the nearest taxidermist to get me something special for Easter...something lasting and non-fattening at that.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The owl at night...the skull in the rock...

Things I like about Sydney No. 17: the owl at night and the skull in the rock.

I haven't been sleeping very well lately. Not only do I find it difficult to get to sleep upon retiring but I also wake early to the sounds of kookaburras cackling and magpies hooting. There might be little or no traffic noise audible here in our shack but that dawn chorus sure is loud.

The other night I read a biography of Rock Hudson figuring that it might help send me to sleep. Instead I stayed up until two in the morning finishing the bloody thing. Poor Rock. Having magnificently managed to manipulate the press for all of his illustrious career, persuading both them and the general public that he was in real life the 'full-blooded' heterosexual male he portrayed in countless movies, it all went tits up right at the end. With threats of blackmail and betrayal looming thicker and faster than ever before in his life he was forced to publicly announce that he was dying of AIDS whilst holed up in a hotel room in Paris. As the first celebrity to admit to the disease he was not lauded and praised. Oh no. He was vilified like no-one before him or since, his entire career forgotten on the spot. His very image, one that countless women and men had swooned over for decades, was wiped out and entirely replaced by one skeletal photo of him looking seriously ill. Newspapers printed any old vile story, seriously claiming for instance that he deliberately tried to kill Linda Evans by kissing her in one of his final acting scenes for Dynasty...

Anyway, the biography, needless to say, all ends horribly with Rock being dragged through hideous court cases even AFTER his death, ex-lovers suing him for millions. I laid the book down, felt unutterably depressed remembering the people I knew in the mid-eighties who died of AIDS and tried to go to sleep. Next thing I knew I was screaming and watching an arm being thrust through the light fitting in the ceiling above our bed. Daniel leaps out of bed crying "What is it, what is it?" as I point dumbstruck at the ceiling. He rushes to turn the light on to reveal....the light fitting above our bed.

Poor Rock. Still giving people nightmares in 2010.

I lay back in bed trying to get to sleep again, rather disturbed by this very vivid hallucination, and that's when I heard it - this:

An owl! An owl! Somewhere out there in the darkness amidst the rustling trees and the outspread tree-ferns was an owl. Hooting, just like we expect owls to do.

I have done extensive audio research, cross-checked with lists of fauna and flora native to Lane Cove and its environs, and I can safely say that I was hearing the wonderfully named Powerful Owl, the largest of  Australian nocturnal birds. Unfortunately, I doubt very much that I will ever see the thing let alone manage to take a photograph of it so I have had to make do for this blog with a picture of an owl that resides round the corner from our shack (on the way to Wollstonecraft station), permanently, on someone's gate post.

The Powerful Owl mates for life (which can mean up to thirty years - not quite your Golden Wedding Anniversary) and pairs defend their all-purpose territory year-round. Now that I have heard the owl's nocturnal song I find I can pick it out most nights: a magical, haunting, melancholy, other-worldly sound, its mellifluousness belying the fact that this monster owl can eat a whole possum...Owls have so much resonance in folklore and legend it seems only right that I should lie awake of a night simply to catch its call and wonder.

But this is wreaking havoc upon my sleeping patterns as well as heightening my, apparently, already Gothic sensibilities. Today, I was meandering down a well-trodden route with Sniff, clambering down from Vista Street towards Berry Creek along a path whose entrance is hidden between the far right-hand bush and the squiggly ivy-clad branch on the photograph below.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day, with a brilliant azure sky and a sun not too penetratingly hot. I was silently lamenting the fact that the Council had been along and chopped down some undergrowth on each side of the path which had in the past provided perfect sanctuary to some tiny little grey birds - so swift and small that I have never been able to identify them - when my eye fell upon a rock close to the creek's edge...I stepped back in horror...

It may be Rock's doing; it might be the owl's. But what was previously a completely innocuous innocent piece of stone is now a SKULL-etched nightmare upon which the afternoon sun pounces to sketch in blood-dripped fangs. There this image will be, lying in wait for Sniff and I every time we wander past, just beyond the little grey birds' graveyard.........

Seriously, I really should get some more sleep. I haven't even started on the Easter chocolate yet....