Thursday, July 29, 2010

Getting Away From It; or Encounters With Emus

Things I  Like About Syndey No. 27: Getting Away From It...

I have to start this blog with a serious warning. Please pay attention. Here it comes...

Don't let anyone ever, EVER, persuade you that it would be a good idea to drive from Sydney to Adelaide. However attractive they may be, however stylish their car, whatever beguiling arguments they may come up with ("It will be both cheaper and more leisurely than flying; we'll drive past some magnificent scenery") DO NOT agree to their suggestion. For no amount of enticements and inducements can ever outweigh the sheer hellish reality of being sat in a carseat for two long, long days, driving down a featureless highway at a steady 110 kilometres an hour, passing road sign after road sign after road sign after road sign that doesn't even mention your destination as being anywhere remotely close. The "Are we there yet?" joke soon wears thin. Complaining that "We could have flown to London and back by now", doesn't help. And what is more, once you have finally arrived, once you've finally settled in to a holiday groove, guess what? You realise you've got to do the journey in reverse all over again in order to get home. And if you're really lucky, on your return travels, just as the thought of dinner is concertinaing the kilometres slightly as night falls, a thick fog will suddenly descend turning the first day's journey into a tense, hungry, relationship-busting thirteen hour nightmare...

Oh me, oh my. We got there and back safely, that's the main thing I suppose, and little Sniff didn't have to suffer the indignity of being stuffed in a plastic carrying case in the hold of an aeroplane. And we weren't actually headed directly for Adelaide, but for the Coorong which is east a bit and essentially a National Park consisting of a long, narrow, hyper-saline lagoon which stretches from the mouth of the River Murray, south-eastward for nearly 150 kilometres. Daniel's family own a sprawling homestead on the edge of the lagoon, McGrath Flat, so-called after McGrath, a white traveller who was butchered by aborigines whilst camping on the spot back in 1842. Shortly after this inauspicious beginning, in 1858, McGrath Flat became an hotel (and was briefly re-named the Tom O'Shanter). This inn developed into an important stopping-point in this bleak and uninhabited area and soon housed both a post office and a telegraph office. By the 1900s however, as trade fell away from the area and gold prospectors no longer passed through, it became a farmstead. Today, the neighbouring farmers still graze their sheep in the overgrown fields, kangaroos make their home in the woods, and the shearer's quarters, shearing shed and shearer's cottage are all slowly falling to wrack and ruin. The main house is being bravely maintained by the heroic efforts of Daniel's mother...

This is the main building. Just across from it, over a curving stretch of road, lies the lagoon. You enter the house from the left hand side of the building through a courtyard (Sniff has his nose to the wall in the photo as if banished to the corner for bad behaviour...).

In the enormous pine tree next the house roosts a pair of Nankeen Kestrels who watched us daily with flashing beady eyes. A couple of herons crash-landed there as well on our first morning but we never caught sight of them again. Galahs, currawongs and crows circle the chimneys of the farm endlessly (sometimes falling down them) and Black-Shouldered Kites have noisy face-offs with the kestrels. Pelicans occasionally glide soundlessly across the sky. These are the winter birds of McGrath Flat and Daniel, Sniff and I would sit on the low wall in the courtyard and listen to their cacophony of calls.

But the strangest, the biggest, the scariest bird of McGrath Flat? When would it reveal itself? We'd heard the rumours circulating, the reported sightings...

We first stumbled across evidence of something rather larger than a pelican on our early morning walk down to the lagoon along a path directly opposite the house. Daniel and I have named this walk the Dead Seal Stroll, after we discovered the seal corpse there (subject of Blog No. 21: Corpses...). Last winter, any attempt at the Dead Seal Stroll meant battling with endless clouds of midges and mosquitoes, but this year the walk was pleasantly devoid of insect life (apart from big fat hairy caterpillars clinging to grass stems), and we all bounded down the path with palpable energy. Daniel then spotted this:

And then as we got nearer to the water I spotted these:

Obviously something large and upright with an enormous middle toe was in the neighbourhood... something whose prints could dwarf those of a sizeable gull. Suddenly, it seemed that the few olive trees and scraggly native bushes didn't offer much protection.

It wasn't until the next day, when I drew back the curtains of the living room in the morning, that the owners of these prints stepped out of the bushes and revealed themselves in all their bizarre glory.

As Emus.

Here are some facts I've learned about emus.
1. They have two sets of eyelids.
2. They can run at speeds of up to 50 kilometres an hour.
3. They are thought to date back 80 million years.
4. They lay emerald green eggs.
5. Sniff doesn't like them at all.

None of these facts did I glean from watching the emus grazing the olive trees opposite the house at McGrath Flat. From watching them I learnt that they graze in groups, they jump off the ground to reach fruit on higher branches, they scarper at the sound of a gate opening but not at the sound of a passing car, and they sit down quite a bit and look bored. Fact No. 5 I learnt on an early morning Dead Seal Stroll with Sniff when we turned a corner only to see six emus directly ahead of us on the path. Sniff's hair raised up in a crest along his spine from head to tail and he started growling in a way I'd never heard before. Not reckoning our chances against six six foot emus I decided that we should scarper, especially as big chief male emu began to advance towards us as opposed to running off flapping its six inch wings (Fact No. 6 : they do have 'em....)

Below is my favourite footprint photograph for you can see the very identations of the skin on the sole of the emu's foot...With this much detail, be thankful that I shall spare you my photographs of emu droppings...the birds apparently often re-visit their own droppings in order to pick out any undigested seeds and from what we saw, that's quite a meal...

To your average Australian these shaggy relics are old hat. Emus are fairly common in the wild and are also busy being farmed for their meat, their feathers, their eggs, their toenails...However, they don't exactly roam down the streets of Sydney of a morning and to me they represent a strange, antique land and gave me an unique opportunity to briefly co-star in my very own production of Jurassic Park...


  1. I like this post, I have rarely seen an emu, I dont think ever in the wild like that, they are so prehistoric aren't they? wonder what spirit spooks sniff detected?

  2. Away from it all? It's in Sydney that you are away from it all. McGrath flats are Australia as you found out. Do/did emus have natural predators - apart from us? That can be fact no. 7. Pleased you both returned to the Glenview menagerie safely.