JENNI'S OFF-GRID NEWSLETTER, NO. 41 (JANUARY, 2019)
January 25, 2019Three Weeks in the Middle of a Bird Colony
Heron Island on the southern Great Barrier Reef hasn’t lost its magic over the 40 years we have been coming here. This is our fifth stay but is the first time we have been back since 2000, so not surprisingly, there are a few changes. The Research Station where we are staying has been rebuilt after a fire many years ago and is considerably bigger. We are staying in one of the two original houses however, but even these have been vastly improved by having fans that one can blast in the direction of the bed at night, and desalinated water. A far cry from the Turtle Island experiences of Anna in “A Drop in the Ocean” which were based on Heron 40 years ago. Back then we had only black and smelly Noddy shit water off the roof, bucket showers (with Noddy Shit water, which was also the only water for drinking, cooking etc), and no fans. The coral isn’t as colourful as it used to be on the reef flats as the result of some episodes of coral bleaching, but it is still wonderful and the myriads of colourful fish are still there. Eagle Rays and various sharks are plentiful right on the edge in water only 30 cms deep and the Rays are so unconcerned about humans they seem almost like pets, and can even be patted!
Green turtles make their way up the beach at night to dig their nests and lay their eggs, and some of them no doubt are the very ones I tagged 40 years ago. Not many hatchlings are appearing as yet, and strangely when they do appear they seem to be in small numbers rather than the eighty or so that should be emerging from a single nest. Perhaps it is the heat of the sand; that is also a concern as particularly warm conditions change the proportion of females to males in the females’ favour. I suppose that’s better than the reverse as one male can copulate with numerous females, and does; these giants are not into pair-bonding for life! Where ever there are hatchlings people appear, oo-ing and ah-ing at the clockwork perfection of the babies and their mission to get to the sea (and tonight a large nest did finally erupt; about 100 or so babies of which a fair few got eaten by gulls). It becomes a competition between the very aggressive seagulls—these seem much more numerous now than in past years—and the humans trying to protect ‘their’ hatchling as it scuttles up and down the mountains in the sand until it at last finds the edge of the sea and swims out. If it is one of the tiny percentage that makes it without being picked off birds or some hungry sea creature, it wonlt be seen again until it is dinner plate size.
The sea is delicious; many shades of blue and turquoise and blissful to swim in. The sea temperature is close to 30 degrees; not good for the corals so hopefully it will cool down sooner rather than later. Although it is hot in the sun, it isn’t too hot, probably in the low 30s, and on Shark Bay there is always a cool breeze and plenty of shade.
The birds are the same; here in their multiple thousands shitting everywhere and making the most ear-splitting din. During the day it is the white capped noddy terns nesting in their thousands in every tree, and at night begins the ghostly orchestra of the wedgetail shearwaters, moaning up and down the scale in their thousands. They arrive in their clumsy way around 8pm, one or two stumbling onto our deck and even into the house. Their wailing reaches a crescendo at about 4am, and they become quiet just before dawn breaks, when one bird of each pair flies back to sea, leaving the other under the ground on the nest. Negotiating the ground here takes focus as it is easy to collapse a burrow, and then comes the task of clearing it out by hand, trying to avoid getting nipped by the adult bird. Bridled terns, rails, and of course herons are also here in considerable numbers.
Although the Resort at the other end of the island (5 minutes walk from the research station as it is a very small island!) is at maximum capacity right now, it is a mystery where the 300 guests are during the day or night. A few people here and there or snorkling on the reef flats or being taken for a reef walk when the reef is exposed, and others will be out on diving and snorkling boats, but where are all the rest? Asleep in their cabins? Eating in the restaurant?
It is dfficult to decide which part of the day is best; at both 6am and 6pm the light is magical. At dawn, depending on the time of the high tide, turtles might still be seen making their way back down the beach, and birds fly continuously out to sea. At dusk, the birds are coming in from the sea and the sunsets are magnificent, especially if the G&T is long and cold. The photo above, one of thousands I have taken, is just before sunset.
I am here on a research writing trip; first to research a possible new novel set on the Great Barrier Reef, and second to revise my current ms. The history of Heron is quite rich and I have been thinkimg about a historical novel (late 1920s to late 1940s) set here, based very loosely on facts. It includes a murder which is not part of the factual history but could be as the man who started up the Resort after the turtle soup factory folded (because they had harvested all the turtles) went missing when he was rowing back to Heron after a visiting a friend on his launch. The dinghy was found upturned, but never a body. He had divorced his wife and mother of his 5 children just a year earlier… perhaps it was revenge! It is always tricky writing historical fiction based on real people who no doubt have descendants somewhere. Indeed the children might still be alive; they would be in their late eighties and nineties now.
I have at least added a few Heron Island scenes to the novel I am revising…
The Makers Shed, an art and creative hub of a silversmith and a writer in New South Wales (https://www.facebook.com/MakersShedGlenInnes/) chose “A Drop in the Ocean” for their January High Country Book Club, and later that evening had a FB chat with me.
I gave a talk to the Resort here on Heron about the island 40 years ago and how it inspired “A Drop in the Ocean.” I used as my theme a quote from award-winning US writer Anni Proux: “If you get the landscape right, the characters will step out of it, and they’ll be in the right place.” How that resonates with me. Whereever I walk or snorkel on Heron, I can almost see Anna and Tom ahead of me, or walking towards me, or talking intensely on the beach at Shark Bay. Tom’s house is still here and just the same.
It was a tough choice this month; I looked through my Kindle library and discovered at least five books I have read in the last few weeks which I could happily recommend, each one of them entirely different (in genre) from the others. But I decided that Glass Houses by Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny, would be the book that would be the perfect holiday read for those of you still in the holiday mood. The other reason I selected this book is because it is the first Louise Penny book I have read, and until my cousin recommended her and her books I had never heard of her. She is a prolific writer, has won numerous awards for her mysteries and I do not know how I missed her all these years. This book is the 13th in her series about Chief Superintendent Armaud Gamache of the Surete du Quebec. Although it was clear he had solved many crimes before in the small village of Three Pines, and that the villagers would all be well known to readers of the previous books, this didn’t matter a jot, showing that Penny is a master at her craft of series writing. It (and I assume all her books) is written in a contemporary (or perhaps timeless) PD James, whodunit style, where many could have dunnit and who really dunnit is not revealed and not guessed (by me at least) until the very end of the book. Three Pines is richly evoked through the eccentric characters, and in this story there is a mysterious and forboding hooded figure who appears on the Village Green and stands motionless and silent there day after day, in moral judgement over someone ( but who?), as Cobradors do. Everyone in the village including Gamache believes it is he (or her) whose sins have been found out. There are many strands to this story and they all come together at the end in the dramatic last few pages. Highly recommended as a page-turning, entertaining, and mind-bending murder mystery with heart.
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