03 July 2009

The extraordinary and the everyday

We roamed the eastern seaboard of Australia in the style of the classic Dalal family road trip. My brother-in-law is a pro by now; he's even introduced his own innovations (SatNav), but it was Craig's first. My 4-year-old niece and my 6-year-old nephew are already old hands at these sort of things, and I was only seven when my Mom, Dad, sister, grandparents and I spent weeks meandering the continental US in an Astro Van--with racing stripes. Back then, we happily took in the marvelous and the mundane, the Grand Canyon and the Big Red gum flavoured soda pop sold only in Texas only for a short time. Weren't we lucky to be in that place at that specific time?

This time, we were six grown-ups and two adorable chickens squished into a minivan with two car seats, heaps of luggage and enough Oreos, Doritos and Mama Dalal's desi junk food to keep everyone's mouth shut for a good long while. The miraculous and the mediocre again marked our travels; the Great Barrier Reef turned me into a snorkeling adventurer (whoa!).

Muttonbird Island on Coff's Harbour turned me into the kind of person who decided not to bother with this particular bushwalk. I'm sure you'll be surprised to hear there were no muttonbirds and the "island" is actually more of a hill, and pictures are best taken at night.

We saw the Big Banana of the Gold Coast, which actually wasn't big enough to warrant a photograph--I've seen a bigger cigarette than that in North Carolina--and we found glittering wonder in the quiet rainforests of the Atherton tablelands. In the Canopy Treehouses, we hiked and fed turtles, and a cheeky possum climbed right onto our porch to steal the birdfood.

Nanu (that's my nephew's nickname) presented a darling report on Australian birds; we all became amateur birders. I can now identify the Pacific duck (brown and duck-like, looking rather ordinary, but with a black stripe behind the eye) and a Masked Lapwing (surprisingly, looks like it's wearing a yellow mask). I now recognise a Lewin's Honeyeater (identified by the semi-circular yellow ear patch),

a Red-Browed Finch (Quite sociable with fellow birds and people)

(though often very blurry in photographs.)

and the Noisy Miner (loves Starburst).

We even saw a wild cassowary with his two baby chicks. Have you even heard of these? Cassowaries have "horn-like crests called casques on their heads, up to 18 cm (7.1 in). These 'casques' consist of a keratinous skin over a core of firm, cellular foam-like material." Their inner toes "sport a dagger-like claw that is 125 millimetres (4.9 in) long. This claw is particularly fearsome since cassowaries sometimes kick humans and animals with their enormously powerful legs." **Information from Wikipedia.

That's right. What I am saying is that this is a 1.5 metre tall flightless bird with a huge foam horn on its head that can disembowel your dog or small child with a kick.

He looks like a dinosaur. Yes, I know all birds are pretty much dinosaurs. But this is different. Their feathers look like hair. This is a huge and primally intimidating bird. Until you learn they are afraid of umbrellas, and you remember that dinosaurs had pretty small brains.

I hand-fed wallabies and adorable pademelons. We saw a mama wallaby with a baby in its pouch! When things like this happen, the fact smacks you in the head that you are decidedly in a strange country, you are definitely in Australia.

We saw the exuberant plant life in the rainforest of northern Queensland and considered moving there. Forever.

I couldn't believe even the fungal plant diseases appear beautiful, reminding us of roses even as they slowly kill another beautiful flower.

We spent hours in the car, the kids playing TicTacToe and Hangman in the mountains outside Cairns, and I remembered reading volumes and volumes of The Babysitters' Club in the Rockies.

At Victoria's Twelve Apostles, we watched a sparkling sunset, and avoided the chickens as they asked, "Nija Masi, what are apostles?"

Melbourne was the last leg of our trip, and as we waited in the freezing seabreeze and rain, hoping to see a hundred Little Penguins make their way home, we huddled around the kids to keep our own birds warm. Every trip has the extraordinary and the everyday, but this time, the extraordinary was the everyday. We saw spectacular nature, but my niece and nephew were magical. Just playing UNO or TicTacToe, I fell in love with them again and again, every moment. And the Antarctic ocean wind blew tears in my eyes... my favourite little penguins would be making their own way home far too soon.

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