Things (I like) about Sydney No. 45: Surprised! at the Strickland State Forest.
Our trip began peacefully enough.
After packing a little picnic Daniel, Sniff and I piled into the car yesterday morning (it was eleven or so) and drove north along the Pacific Highway, leaving the city behind. We were heading for the Strickland State Forest where we were going to walk the 'Bell Bird Trail' ("an hour and half, moderately difficult"), find some shady spot, eat and then return home. Despite the gloomy gray skies above Daniel assured me that, according to his weather iPhone app, it wasn't going to rain anymore. We felt we were going to be lucky.
It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to get to the forest, especially in post-Christmas traffic. We had to weave in and out of a constant stream of cars and lorries until finally leaving the freeway at Peak's Ridge Road and shaking off all the other travellers. We soon found the dirt track that leads into the Strickland State Forest despite taking a wrong turning and we drove down its bumpy surface for two kilometres or so and parked, solitarily, at the entrance to the trail.
Last time we came to the forest, back in September, Sniff was bitten by an enormous red ant after five minutes of walking so we never made it to the Bell Bird Trail. This time we were determined to see and hear the Bell birds and to spend most of the day walking amongst the trees and ferns.
The forest is very jungly with massive amounts of palms, creepers, grasses and odd-looking vines. The whirring of insects is almost deafening and birds trill by the dozen. One feels like Tarzan.
It is very isolated and today there is not a person in sight. We are a long way from civilisation, on an escapade. It's all very Picnic At Hanging Rock (except of course that this is a forest not a rock). We set off down the trail carrying half the picnic (we'll reward ourselves with the Christmas Cake when we get back), some water, some dog treats, a water bowl, the binoculars, a camera and our iphones in case we get bitten by a snake and need to call an ambulance.
Meandering slowly along the track Daniel trains his new super-clear super-magnifying binoculars (Xmas present) on an Eastern Yellow Robin and some tiny wrens, Sniff bounds along sniffing and I photograph a remarkable dangling bird's nest.
We reach the entrance to the Bell Bird Trail and it looks distinctly unused and overgrown. We have to hack our way through the undergrowth searching for the path below our feet. As we progress slowly deeper into the forest, the sounds of Bell birds begin to emanate from all sides. Their distinctive calls are remarkably close but the birds themselves remain very difficult to spot. We stand still for a while, deep in the damp undergrowth, whilst Daniel peers about with his binoculars. He spots what he thinks might be a Bell bird directly above us in a tree.
Daniel's pointing out the exact spot where the bird is perched but I am strangely preoccupied with a crawling dampness on my leg. Suddenly, the air is rent with the sound of screaming.
It's me. Screaming. For my shoes and legs are covered in writhing, waving, blood-seeking, ravenous, predatory sucker-mouthed leeches.
I panic. I flail about, trying to brush them off my shoes, yelling to Daniel "Get them off me! Get them off me! They're everywhere." And indeed they are. On my socks, on my jeans, on my legs, on the ground ready to sucker on. I yell some more. It only seems right to. "Get them off me. Push them off with a stick. Nooooo!"
Five or so leeches fall, thwarted, to the forest floor. I look past them and see another dozen waving their heads in the air waiting for their chance at a meal. We now realise that the Bell Bird Trail is probably not a good idea. We realise that we should abandon our leisurely pace and hightail it outta here. The path is literally crawling with leeches, fore and aft.
Daniel, for some reason, thinks it best to press forward rather than to turn back, despite the fact that the trail is 3.4 kilometres long and we've probably only done 0.4 kilometres. So we push on through the undergrowth determinedly not looking down, bringing our feet up high and bringing them crashing down, destroying the chance of seeing any wildlife or birds because of our swift pace and noisy progress but hopefully scaring the hell out of the leeches as well.
I keep wanting to stop and check my legs and feet (I even have a hole in my shoe and imagine the little bastards gleefully crawling through it to feast on my toes) but Daniel thinks its better to crash on and check once we're back at the car. I can't obey this ruling however and stop to have a look. Sure enough, another four leeches are making their obscene way up my socks to my bare flesh and I yell and scream and brush them off frantically before carrying on again.
Suddenly, it's all too much. I snap. I can bear it no longer. I'm going to be leeched alive. As I discover another three leeches on my FLESH I start to run like a mad thing through the forest, heading for the car as fast as I can go leaving both Sniff and Daniel behind, rending the air once more with my screams. Now it really is like Picnic At Hanging Rock. I am possessed by supernatural energy and the possessor of the loudest screams the Strickland State Forest has ever witnessed.
Once back at the car, closely followed by a very bewildered dog and Daniel who looks like he wants to slap me very hard, I rip off my shoes and socks and start searching my legs for leeches. I realise this isn't enough and rip off my jeans as well. I sit on the bonnet of the car half-naked, moaning, and beating the leeches off my socks and legs with my shoes. My periodic checking on the Bell Bird Trail has won out. Nothing has managed to get their suckers in me.
Daniel's coping mechanism hasn't worked so well. His wait till we get to the car park plan. For not only are his socks crawling with leeches, so are his legs...
He also crawls onto the bonnet of the car, takes off his shoes and socks and jeans and starts whimpering a little.
At this point all we needed was for someone else to drive into the clearing and see us, together, in our underpants, sprawled on the bonnet of our car. That would have made our day.
Once relatively leech-free I was ordered to go and put the cigarette lighter on in the car. That old familiar mechanism whereby you push that old button in and a few seconds later out it pops, red-hot. Time to burn the bastards.
It was only after Daniel had been successful in ridding himself of two leeches by poking them with the cigarette lighter in this fashion that he calmed down enough to let me take a photo of this, the third.
And of this, the aftermath:
His legs and feet wouldn't stop bleeding. There was blood on the bonnet of the car, all over his
handkerchief, on the picnic. Picnic at Hanging Rock had turned into Halloween III.
Obviously, the anti-coagulant that leeches use is extremely effective. AND you can't feel them latching on. Silent, stealthy, blood-sucking bastards.
After about twenty minutes of searching all our crevices and clothes for any sign of more leeches we began to calm down. We stomped on and sprayed with insect spray all those leeches littered around the car and were then able to contemplate a bit of picnic. But I soon realised I'd lost my appetite. I couldn't eat any cake. We had to leave. The forest, once so benign, now loured around us like a menacing beast.
After checking every inch of the car for more leeches we set off for home. Straight for home. No more wilderness today, thank you very much.
As Daniel steered us towards Sydney I fell asleep for forty minutes or so with Sniff on my lap, waking up just as the city was taking shape around us and the traffic was chaotic once more. Sniff shifted about a bit, yawned and then decided it was time to take a look out of the window. As he got up onto his hindlegs and put his paws on the windowpane I looked down at my lap and, to my horror, saw I was covered in BLOOD! Halloween IV!
I had checked Sniff for leeches, after we'd checked ourselves, but hadn't found any on his fur. I hadn't reckoned on the leeches being able to nestle into the gaps between his claws on the underside of his paws. Which they had. And all this time they had been feasting on Sniff on my very lap, draining him of his blood.
I looked around me. On the floor of the car wriggled two very fat, sated leeches, slowly waving their heads, contemplating their next meal - my ankles.
I couldn't scream or panic too much because Daniel was driving. So I beat the hell out of the bastards with the blunt end of the can of insect spray and flicked their disgusting bodies out of the car window. Sniff skulked off to the back seat of the car once he'd realised that he'd been suckered and licked at his paws for twenty minutes or so, looking rather bewildered.
"Would this hell ever end?" I thought to myself.
The idea of our lovely home in the bush was of no particular comfort - it's far too close to nature, red in tooth and claw and sucker. I began to dream instead of being in a nice clean modern hotel in a nice clean modern city wearing a nice clean new set of clothes. Of shopping in a nice clean air-conditioned mall where all the plants and trees are plastic and the birdsong piped. Of wandering around somewhere like Disneyland where there is nothing real enough to actually bite.
And then I realised what Daniel and I have to do. That's it. We must give up this real life nonsense and live in a cartoon.
I'll be Snufkin and Daniel can be Moomintroll.
...just, that is, as long as the Hattifattiners don't get us...