Imagine this: it’s late afternoon and you’re relaxing inside your caravan on the Rosebud foreshore. You’ve spent most of the day sailing on Port Phillip Bay. Suddenly you hear the sound of rapid gunfire, followed by screams. You poke your head out of the door. At the other end of the camp park you can see people running for their lives.
You sprint down to the beach where your two kids have been making sandcastles. Get in the boat – you yell – now!
You heave the kids into the yacht and make your escape. Others follow your lead, and soon there is a flotilla of small yachts tacking behind you. Luckily a tailwind speeds you across to the other side of the bay.
When you get to Queenscliff Harbour there are armed men in uniforms hauling people out of their yachts. They’re wearing badges that say ‘Stop The Boats’ and one of them escorts you and your kids to a waiting bus. As you’re shoved up the stairs of the bus you notice the sign above the windshield: ROSEBUD ILLEGALS.
The bus is driven up the hill to the old Queenscliff Fort. You, your two kids and the other Rosebud campers are all herded inside the high red brick walls of the fort. You try telling the guards what has happened – the gunshots, the screams – but they ignore you. Your family is ushered into a small room and you are locked inside.
You remain in that fort for the next five years. In the winters your room is freezing and in the summers it is steaming hot. When your kids get sick there are no specialist doctors available to treat them. The guards limit your access to the phone. No journalists are allowed inside the fort to interview you about your escape across the bay. Sometimes you listen to the local radio station, where you hear talkback callers describing you as a ‘terrorist’.
When one of your kids reveals they have been sexually abused inside the fort, you collar a guard and demand an investigation. Instead, your children are removed from the fort and sent to live with strangers in Queenscliff.
Left alone, you sink into a state of profound hopelessness.
Aren’t we lucky to be living in a civilized country where this kind of thing would never happen?
(This column was first published by Fairfax in January 2018)
In 2018 i will be teaching a variety of writing classes. See below for details and links.
RMIT Professional Writing and Editing Associate Degree
Advanced Features course (first semester) – February to June
RMIT Short Courses
Feature Writing (six weeks) – April 10 to May 15
Creative Non Fiction (six weeks) – Sep 10 to Oct 15
Getting to the Heart of your Story (one day) – February 22
Writing and Anxiety (one day) – April 22
Manningham Regional Library Writers Group
Second Thursday of each month – from Feb
Hiraeth (Welsh) “an acute longing for a home place or time to which you cannot return and without which you are incomplete.”
What I know
On the top of Mt Cooper in the Melbourne suburb of Bundoora stands an ornate red brick mansion topped with gargoyles. The *Bundoora Homestead was built on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri-willam clan in 1899. The then owner of the land, a wealthy horse breeder named J M V Smith, organised a public architectural competition to find the winning design.
The Queen Anne Federation style building became the Smith family home for the next two decades. In 1924 it was sold to the Federal Government and converted into a repatriation mental hospital for Australian soldiers.
After the Second World War a psychiatrist called Dr John Cade was put in charge of the Bundoora Repatriation Mental hospital. In 1948 Dr Cade made history by discovering lithium carbonate, a revolutionary treatment for bipolar disorder, while conducting experiments in one of the hospital’s disused kitchens.
Dr Cade was imprisoned by the Japanese in Changi during World War Two. One of the patients at the mental hospital, Henry ‘Lofty’ Cannon, had also been a Japanese POW. Lofty was a medical orderly and he and Dr Cade had worked together in Changi nursing their fellow prisoners.
After the war Lofty was allotted land for a soldier settlement farm but his mental and physical health deteriorated to the point where he was admitted to the hospital in Bundoora. Lofty never recovered from the trauma of his war experiences and spent most of the remainder of his life as a patient in the Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital.
What I wonder
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
The mind returning and returning to the leaking body,
to the seeping ulcers where the bones are peeping through,
the bones aching from the fever,
the head aching from the blows you took
when you tried to stop the Japs burying a skeleton
who was not quite dead,
a skeleton whose hands still shook,
though his blank eyes stared star-wards?
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did your eyes turn away from the fish
swimming in the wood panels on the staircase,
swimming quicksilver through your dreams,
your hands reaching out to catch them,
stuff them in your mouth, swallow them whole,
fish and rice, that’d be nice,
make a change from the beetles you caught
and buried in your handful of wet grains –
on a good day.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did the doc stuff a rag in your mouth
when he sent those electrical currents through your temples,
funny word, temples,
doors to the mind, the mind is a shrine, a shrine is a temple,
the Japs had temples on the railway,
built to ease the souls of soldiers who died,
their soldiers, not our soldiers,
not the men whose hands you held in the hut they called Ward 5,
the mummies wrapped in bloodied bandages,
who you sometimes saw at the bottom of the wooden staircase,
stroking the pokerwork fish as a soldier might stroke his wife’s face
when the war ends and you all Come Marching Home Again, hurrah, hurrah.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you stare at the bird trapped in the stained glass at the top of the staircase,
the diving swallow who never reaches the nest,
forever plummeting, never landing,
never making it home again to the girl you married
a week before they sent you off to war,
the girl who waited,
who took you back though you were a ‘sad sack’,
that’s what you wrote on the photo they took of you in the ‘rehabilitation camp’,
funny word, rehabilitation, from habitare,
to make fit, to live, to dwell,
but you couldn’t fit, not after Changi,
there was no safe dwelling, no home-place,
only the Homestead now,
for ever and ever, amen.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did they nail the wire mesh over the balcony for you
in case the swallow took a dive over the railing
on a night when the dreams were more real than life,
the same dreams over and over,
the same Jap with the same stick of cane beating down on your back,
the same trembling twig-fingers
hanging over the edge of the stretcher in Ward 5,
waiting for that last ciggy,
mate do us a favour, just one more smoko, hand it over, ya miserable coot,
but in your dreams there are no more smokes,
just the twig-fingers stilling and stiffening on the stretcher,
over and over again,
and is that what you wanted, Lofty,
a dive, a plummet, the soft green grass under the balcony,
the stilling, the stiffening, the silence?
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you think that words would cure you –
‘it’s unburden or burst’, you said –
did you think that a poem was a ticket home,
that if you wrote it all down and called it ‘So, you want OUT’,
even better, if you started a magazine at the hospital, handed it round,
someone would read those words – ‘So, you want OUT’ –
someone would come and get you out,
but out to where, Lofty,
back to the dry red dust under the dying orange trees,
back to the free farmland they gave you after the war,
funny word, free, no costs,
and when you came home you were free,
but there was a cost and no way to pay,
just Mr Smith’s pokerwork fish swimming under the staircase,
burnt into the wood ‘in the Japonaise manner’,
way back when nobody knew what the Japs would do
if they got their hands on you.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did Dr Cade try to get you out,
the alchemist of Bundoora, the lithium magician
messing about in Ward E,
hey, E is the fifth letter of the alphabet, making it Ward 5,
no, not the ward with the mummies on the stretchers,
but maybe Dr Cade was there too, watching those Japs –
‘hmm, they’re suffering from cultural psychopathy’ –
funny word, suffering, to put up with something, or to experience distress,
but in the camp there was no choice,
you had to suffer the suffering,
and what a marvellous marching song it would make –
hup two three four,
keep-it-up two three four:
oedema, malaria, cholera, typhus –
bronchitis, rheumatics and then dermatitis –
ulcers and dysentery, starvation, misery –
after the war – there was still more:
giddiness, trauma, psychosis, anxiety –
migraine, malaria, and for variety –
night sweats and nightmares, loneliness, blank stares,
and more of the misery, misery, misery.
Hey Lofty is this how it was?
Did you lie in your dormitory bed staring
at the rows of climbing roses in winding poses
on Mr Smith’s pretty wallpaper,
and did they remind you of the barbed wire fences around the prison camp,
did you dream of squeezing past those thorns
and escaping into the jungle to find some fungus to feast on,
digging in the mud like a lunatic,
but you weren’t a Lunatic, Lofty,
the Lunatics went to the Asylum in Kew,
with their Melancholia and their Idiocy and their Inebriation,
but you were a Returned Serviceman, the nation was grateful,
it was just your Nerves,
so we gave you a bed in a dormitory in a house on the top of a hill,
with snarling gargoyles and Japonaise fish and thorny wallpaper
and children’s choirs who came to sing for you on a Sunday afternoon,
with their hair brushed neatly, their shoes all shiny,
their eyes popping at the sight of you,
and the children’s songs floated up the wooden staircase,
past the frozen swallow,
through the balcony doors
and out, out, OUT
into the wasted blue sky.
* In 1997 the homestead was gifted to the City of Darebin. After being restored it was opened to the public as The Bundoora Homestead Art Gallery, operating today as a historic house, café and gallery. ‘Hiraeth’ was originally commissioned by ‘Writing this Place 2017, Creative Culture and Events, City of Darebin’.
Thanks to Cassie May, Rachel Buchanan, Elizabeth Welch, Ella Hinkley and the staff of the Bundoora Homestead Art Gallery for their invaluable assistance with this project.
‘A Rich Heritage: The Story of the Bundoora Homestead’, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre
‘Remembering a Forgotten Survivor’, Rachel Buchanan, Griffith review 18, Summer 2007/8
(This essay was published in Meanjin in December 2017)
Dear Hannah Gadsby,
I nearly died last week. I was driving home in my campervan when a tow-truck came careening towards me at high speed. I hit the horn, we both hit the brakes and his truck stopped an inch away from my door. Through the window I lip-read ‘you f#*@ing c#@t!’ Then he climbed out of the cabin and hammered violently on my door, shouting ‘use your f#@*ing eyes, you f@#*ing bitch!’
As I drove away, hands still trembling, I decided to write about that man, and how he reminded me of the man who once kicked a massive dent in my car door because he didn’t like the look of my passenger. Then I would move on to the man who punched a hole in a wall as I was leaving a party, because I wasn’t leaving with him.
That would lead on to the two men who bailed me up at a train station and grabbed at my dress. And the three men who stole my Esky in a caravan park and who, when I confronted them, chased me back to my campervan.
By the time I got home, though, I’d changed my mind. The Sunday Age readers wouldn’t want to hear about my experiences with dodgy men, especially not the male readers. Stories of men behaving badly have been all over the media in the last couple of months – #metoo, #notallmen – enough already.
No, I would write something cheerful. Something about New Year’s resolutions, or how I’ve given up ironing. Something quirky and self-deprecating.
That night, Hannah, I went to see your one-woman comedy show ‘Nanette’. I laughed as you described a bloke at a bus stop telling you to ‘back off’ from his girlfriend because he thought you were a man. I stopped laughing when you told us that you’d always left out the ending of that self-deprecating story.
When you described how the same man beat you black and blue that night, I stopped breathing. When you revealed the other things men had done to you as a child, I felt sick.
And when you promised your audience that you wouldn’t be editing your stories just to get a laugh any more, because true stories like these need to be told, I changed my mind again.
The next day I wrote this column for you.
(This column was first published by Fairfax in December 2017)
There’s a good reason we talk about ‘wallowing’ in self-pity. Giving in to this emotion is like wading into wet concrete: at some point you can find yourself stuck fast. I recently had a narrow escape.
I’d been reading travel blogs by friends of mine doing marathon hiking trips. In Tasmania and Turkey, Central Australia and Spain, they were all clutching maps and grinning like Cheshire cats. Desk-bound in Melbourne, I sat sighing with self-pity.
Why not get out there and join them, I hear you ask?
I did have a plan. This summer I was going to walk the north coast of New Zealand’s south island with some adventurous buddies. The bookings had been made and I’d begun researching backpacks.
Then I visited the doctor who looks after my dodgy spine. A decade and half ago I ended up under the surgeon’s knife. Ever since then my grumbling vertebrae have required careful management.
At the mention of the New Zealand tramping trip the doctor’s eyes widened. Sure, she said, you can lug a backpack around the land of the long white cloud – if you want to have another round of surgery.
I wouldn’t be crossing the ditch after all. Instead I’d be confined to barracks, drooling over my mates’ smiling selfies. Poor me.
According to psychologists, self-pity is a negative emotion that doesn’t help us deal with adverse situations. It’s a state of mind in which we haven’t accepted a situation and believe we are the victims of events. It’s also quite boring.
After wallowing around for a while I decided to quit my self-pity party. It was time for a reality check.
On every other occasion that I’d gone bushwalking carrying my food, clothing and shelter on my back, I’d endured awful pain. Hiking Hinchinbrook Island, battling headwinds in Croajingalong National Park, staggering along the beaches of Fraser Island, I had been punished by my dodgy back. And no doubt my moaning had been punishing for my travel companions.
Fortunately the tourism industry can cater for spines like mine. In rural France a few years ago I walked a hundred kilometres between medieval villages carrying only a water bottle and a camera. My luggage was taxied from hotel to hotel and my back felt just fine.
There’s no point trying to be Wonder Woman. See you in the spa.
(This column was first published by Fairfax, November 2017)
As a child in the seventies my favourite TV show was The Six Million Dollar Man. ‘We can re-build him – we have the technology,’ the voice-over promised. Then along came The Bionic Woman, offering the hope that girls like me could be re-built too. These glossy American series were so optimistic about the possibility of improving on humankind. Stronger, better versions of us were just a few technological breakthroughs away.
Can I blame these fictional caricatures of post-human perfection for my attempts to ‘re-build’ myself over the past four decades? Or was I genetically pre-programmed for self-improvement? Who knows, but I have certainly worked ridiculously hard to re-shape the personality I was born with.
Perhaps the most arduous attempt to ‘re-build’ myself was producing a memoir. In 2014, after five years of research and writing, my memoir ‘Shy’ was published by Text. The book explored my experiences of grappling with a shy temperament and the social anxiety that accompanied it.
Burrowing into the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology and linguistics, I discovered that perfectionism, self-consciousness and social awkwardness were all common features of shyness. I emerged from the research process with a much clearer understanding of the causes of my irrational fear of other human beings. Deep down, I hoped all this research would bulldoze my shyness into submission.
Re-reading my youthful diaries, I discovered that I had been trying to cure myself of shyness for at least forty years. As a teenager I had logged my successes and failures in social encounters. Approaching someone I was interested in counted as a success; withdrawing from or actively avoiding someone interesting was a pathetic failure. Imagine my delight when my memoir research revealed that shyness is a temperament trait described by psychologists as being on the ‘approach-withdrawal’ spectrum.
Even more thrilling was the revelation that I was not responsible for my anxious avoidant behaviours. They were not a sign of weakness or a flawed character. I had been born with this temperament trait (both my parents were shy) and therefore my autonomic nervous system was hard-wired to respond to strangers as if they were threatening.
After the book was published I began to receive emails from readers, shy folk like me, many of whom felt relieved when they read the results of my research. ‘You were writing about me’, they said. ‘I have been struggling to deal with this stuff forever. At least now I know why I am the way I am.’ Many of them related their valiant attempts to be different people – more confident, outgoing, extroverted people – stronger, better people, like those bionic TV stars. Just as my readers felt comforted by the information I’d offered them, I took comfort in the knowledge that I wasn’t the only shy person trying to ‘re-build’ herself.
While I was writing ‘Shy: a memoir’ I had a mentor who read the earliest drafts and made suggestions about how they could be improved. His feedback was often hard to hear, but always useful. One day he sat me down and asked me a simple question: ‘What’s this book about?’
‘Well, I guess it’s about me’, I said. ‘And my shyness.’
‘Here’s the thing’, he responded. ‘I don’t really know you that well, so why should I care? And I’m not shy, so why should I care? How can you make me care about this memoir? What’s it really about?”
His question echoed in my mind for a long time. It wasn’t until the book was finished and published, though, that I could produce a more satisfactory answer.
The memoir I had written was about fear, and loneliness, and fear of loneliness. It was about being ashamed of your presence in the world. It was about wanting to be someone you could never be, and about learning to accept who you really were. You didn’t need to be shy to understand those things, because they were all universal human experiences.
My secret hope – that writing a memoir about shyness would cure me of my shyness – was never realized. I could not re-build my personality with words. What I did, though, was cure myself of the desire to be someone else. I no longer feel ashamed of my social anxiety. On the contrary, I feel compassion for the younger self who diarized her self-therapy and her suffering all those years ago. If only someone has written a memoir about shyness and handed it to her in the university café one day. Perhaps she would have suffered a little less.
And perhaps she would have been less keen to eradicate the shy part of her temperament. My research for ‘Shy: a memoir’ also turned up some positive character traits that often accompany shyness, including empathy, sensitivity and honesty. Just as the fictional bionic woman had to lose bits of herself in order to gain her post-human superpowers, re-building myself as a non-shy person might have involved erasing my better qualities.
I now run workshops for The School of Life (Melbourne and Sydney) called ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’. Over the course of a day I explain to the mostly shy participants exactly why their bodies leap into fight-or-flight mode whenever they meet someone new. And I invite them to consider the benefits of having a shy personality; like being good listeners, and being non-aggressive, conscientious and helpful in social situations.
Like me, the workshop participants often decide they no longer need to try and re-build themselves. Being human is good enough.
(This essay was first published in Dumbo Feather, October 2017)
If I’d consulted a de-cluttering expert this story wouldn’t have had a happy ending. De-clutterers advise us to throw away anything we’re not using all the time, and any objects that make us feel bad. My old Ipod ticked both boxes.
It had been a birthday present from an ex, about a decade ago. Not only had he given me the Ipod, he’d loaded it with a vast sound library; soul, pop, jazz, folk, country, reggae, hip-hop and classical music. Tedious tram rides into work were transformed by this glorious gift.
Skip forward half a decade. The break-up was punishing, the kind you’d like to have surgically removed from your memory bank. I packed everything of ‘ours’ into a cardboard box and hid it under the stairs – letters, books, photos – and the damned Ipod. I couldn’t bring myself to chuck them away but I had to get them out of sight, out of mind.
Skip forward to the present. An elderly relative of mine has fallen ill. He’s sick enough to need a long hospital stay but well enough to be conscious of the cacophony around him. The groans of other patients, the machines that go bing, the visitors on their mobiles – it’s driving him mad. What can I do to help?
One day as I’m sitting by his bed, trying to ignore the wet coughing of the next patient, I remember the Ipod lurking under the stairs. My elderly relative used to be an orchestral musician and he still loves his music. The Ipod was a fifth generation ‘classic’ with simple push buttons. Even an elderly technophobe could use it – if it’s still working.
Back home I ferret under the stairs, pull out the ancient device and blow the dust off. Charged up, it miraculously comes to back to life. There’s a ton of classical music on there, everything from Bach to Mozart to Wagner.
The next time I visit my elderly relative I slip some headphones over his ears and show him how to press the button for Beethoven’s fifth symphony. At the sound of the opening chords a beatific smile lights up his face. He nods and gives me the thumbs up.
Heading out the door I glance back at him. His eyes are closed and his hands are waving in the air, conducting an invisible orchestra. And he’s still smiling.
(This column was first published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in October 2017)
According to British singer-songwriter Morrissey ‘shyness is nice’. When shyness leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and even friendless, though, it can be anything but nice. Shyness often manifests as social anxiety, and as Morrissey sings in his song Ask Me, it can stop you from doing the things you want to do in your life.
After spending more than four decades wrangling with my own shyness, I wrote a book called ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing) in which I investigated the causes and symptoms of this inherited personality trait. I discovered that shy people often feel anxious about social encounters because we fear other people’s judgment – specifically, their negative evaluation. We torment ourselves with self-critical thoughts like “I look out of place”, “I sound stupid” and “I’m making a fool of myself”.
Our fear can manifest as a bunch of distressing physical symptoms, including sweating, trembling, hyperventilating and blushing. Shy folk feel self-conscious in the company of people we don’t know well and will cross the street to avoid having to speak to acquaintances. In the long term social anxiety can also mess with the digestive system. All that churning sometimes causes IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
The good news is that shy people are often those with the most empathy. We spend a lot of time thinking about what other people are thinking, and that can sometimes be a good thing. Many shy people go into the caring professions, like nursing, teaching and counseling.
So how can we best deal with the downsides of shyness and take advantage of the upsides?
Based on the research I did for ‘Shy: a memoir’ I’ve come up with a list of ten practical strategies for coping with shyness:
1) Use self-talk to reduce your discomfort. Remind yourself that 50% of the people around you are probably ALSO feeling shy. You are not alone in dealing with these feelings. Try to separate your mind from your body’s symptoms. Eg. tell yourself ‘oh there go those butterflies in my stomach again, they’ll disappear soon’.
2) Plan ahead. Prepare for social events that you feel nervous about. Spend some time trying to remember the names of the people who might be there. Perhaps find ‘safe’ friends who are also going to the event. Use self-talk to remind yourself that you won’t be able to control all aspects of this social interaction. Be prepared to deal with a level of uncertainty.
3) Help others at social events. Try to spot some other shy people and help them out by approaching them. This takes the focus off your own discomfort and gives you a focus to help you take the attention off yourself. Assume the burden of initiating the conversation by asking others questions about themselves.
4) Try exposure therapy. Give yourself regular small challenges in dealing with your shyness, to give yourself confidence (but keep them small to begin with because if you have bad experiences they might reinforce your fears). Then reward yourself for being brave in the face of your anxiety.
5) Organise or join social activities in ways that suit you It can help to arrange or go along to events that are regular or semi-regular (eg. book clubs, clothes swaps, meet-ups, classes, tree-planting) where you know who’ll be there, and where there is an activity as the main focus of the event. This gives you something to talk about that you all have in common, as opposed to free-form socializing, which can be full of uncertainty.
6) Confide your shyness to others rather than hide it. This can have a cathartic effect and reduce your sense of aloneness and/or shame.
7) Adopt a ‘persona’. In your professional capacity or your parenting capacity, for example, you can tell yourself that YOU are not being judged because you represent something bigger and more important than you (your place of employment, your useful work role, your role as a carer).
8) Keep a diary of your journey to management of your shyness/social anxiety. Note your progress and your challenges. Reflect on what you are going through.
9) Use social media to reach out, but be wary of the downsides. Monitor its effect on you and take breaks when you need to. Assess the positives and negatives (eg. FOMO).
10) Try other anxiety management strategies. Consider meditation, yoga, physical exercise, deep breathing and other forms of relaxation therapy. You can also seek professional counseling. Psychologists are trained to help people with social anxiety and can offer CBT and reassurance. You could also consider joining an anxiety support group at ARCVic (the Anxiety Recovery Centre). http://www.arcvic.org.au
This article was first published in The Guardian in October 2017.
Exotica: Songs from Another Time, Another Place
The Westgarth Ensemble explores the exotic as seen through the eyes of composers from the Baroque through to the 20th century. Experience the biblical lands as depicted in songs by Handel, feel the allure of the East as presented in operas by Puccini and Delibes, and travel back in time to the new world of Rameau’s ‘noble savages’.
A recent visit to the Islamic Museum of Australia inspired the Westgarth Ensemble to investigate how western composers have exploited the romance of distant lands to add a frisson of the exotic to their music and drama.
Come with us on a musical tour through history and geography with Exotica.
When: Sunday October 15, 2:00pm
Where: Bardin Centre
Christ Church Anglican Church
8 Glenlyon Rd, Brunswick
Who: The Westgarth Ensemble
Claire McDonald (Soprano)
Katrena Mitchell (Soprano)
Sian Prior (Soprano)
Kerrie Bolton (Mezzo soprano)
with Gregory Smith (Piano)
Admission: $25 ($20 concession) – bookings here.
Background: The members of the Westgarth Ensemble have been singing together since 1997. Graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio, they have all worked for a range of Australian opera companies and ensembles. In recent years they have been presenting themed vocal concerts in venues around Victoria. In 2015 they performed ‘Who Wears the Pants’ followed in 2016 by ‘Supernatural’ at the Armadale Uniting Church and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Clownfish to the left of me, goatfish to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle of a stunning coral reef which may not survive.
I’m snorkelling off Lady Elliott Island, a coral cay at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Below are handbag-sized clams with luminescent green lips and black sea slugs frosted with sugary sand. Every imaginable dance move is going on around me – flicking, swaying, shimmying, darting – a hyperactive ballet troupe, except the dancers are all fish.
Come to think of it, this reef has all the art forms covered: the Rembrandt blue starfish, the Ballets Russes damselfish, the Stravinsky-esque percussion of a million tiny mouths nibbling on coral.
Even football gets a look-in. I nickname a little black and white guy the Collingwoodfish (it’s actually called a humbug). Later I will discover there is another one (I kid you not) called the Chinese footballer cod.
Back on the beach I watch a woman from our tour group trying to cajole her young son into snorkelling. He’s shaking his head and whimpering. There’s scratchy sand in his fins. “Don’t you realise,” I want to whisper urgently to him, “this could be your last chance!”
Mass bleaching has affected two thirds of the Great Barrier Reef in the last couple of years, killing huge quantities of coral. Climate change is a major factor. The southern part, including Lady Elliott Island, has sustained less damage than the north. But a local ranger tells us there was worrying bleaching here last summer, halted only by the cooler currents that came with Cyclone Debbie.
Later our group bobs above the coral in a glass-bottomed boat. The boy who wouldn’t go snorkelling leans over the glass, spotting the fish and turtles mooching below us. With the encouragement of the ranger he pulls his goggles on and slides into the water.
Half an hour later the boy hauls himself back onto the boat, teeth chattering, eyes wide with the shock of pleasure. ‘I saw a manta ray!’ he tells us. ‘And Nemo!’
The Germans probably have a word for the grief you feel when you’ve not yet lost something, but suspect you soon will. As we fly back to the mainland over the endless blue, there are whales to the left of us, dolphins to the right. Here we are, stuck in the middle of paradise, and we’re running out of time.
For more info: ladyelliott.com.au
This column was first published by Fairfax on September 10th 2017.
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