Sunday, April 23, 2006

leeches

Australians who travel to Papua New Guinea, the huge island just north of Queensland in Australia, make it is clear that the only way to survive in that equatorial rain forest is NOT to go alone. The communal give and take of New Guinea called 'one tok', so at odds with western capitalism, provides the highland peoples and their Australian tourists the only possibility of survival in the jungle wilderness. However, unlike the indigenous communal world of PNG, chance and luck may be the forces that push Australians and other westerners to share their spaces and commercial goods at home. Perhaps our sharing has more to do with our intentions, the strength of which tends to manifest others to help us create our world.

In my case, for instance, it is Lorraine whom I intended to meet. Now, don't misunderstand. I didn't mean to meet Lorraine specifically. I enrolled in a graduate program at The University of Queensland with the intention of meeting folks who love what I love, whose perception of the world has some similarities to my own. Like Sarah Turnbull in Almost French, my main friends here in Oz, my first friends, are ex pats. However, in most cases, I make the choices. Not so in the case of Lorraine. She is the outgoing person who choses to walk out of class with fellow students like me; it is she who strikes up conversations. I remember the warm winter evening when first we met in the early darkness at the adjournment of class.

Almost a year later, here we are in the midst of writing, both of us sitting at our own computer on a sunny Australian autumn afternoon in Ipswich, a bush suburb of Brisbane, in the midst of a library garden with perfect air conditioning as we quietly attempt to share our recent journey, to conjure a mood, an interest, in you, dear reader.





But let me explain the relationship between my meeting with Lorraine and the topic of this essay about leeches, the least inviting critters on the planet, more horrifying than roaches, white ants, poisonous spiders, or marsupial marauders. Yes, let us begin with leeches, who frequently occur in travel memoirs about the bush or the 'outback'. The bloodsuckers of the world are the poster children of adventure literature, movies, novels, and horror dramas. You may well wonder if Lorraine brought leeches to class.

No, my first encounter with the spineless critters came as I walked the highlands of Lamington National Park in southern Queensland with the Aussie who is now my partner, but then is simply my Australian friend. We had walked about six kilometres from the lodge at Bina Burra, where we were celebrating New Years, on a sunny summers day. For most of our journey I had been sweating. However, by this time we reach an altitude in the rain forests on the border between New South Wales and Queensland where the cloud cover brings cooling breezes. The view from a sawed in half log bench built into the hillside of the trail is so lovely that I have to stop. I sit down to enjoy, lean back against the hillside and take in the vista. I'm not tired, just wallowing in the strange loveliness of this new place.

From this bench one can see across the rolling grey-green gum tree ridgelines to the Pacific just south of the metropolis of The Gold Coast. All the high rises of that modern conclave are not within my purview. The scene is framed by amazing blues: sky softening through low lying coastal cloud cover meets the blues of the Tasman sea softly front lit by the afternoon sun off to the west behind the rain forest canopy.

Graham, who is a few meters in front of me, realizes I am not behind him and turns to see if I have once again slipped in the mud. I'm not using walking sticks yet and having just two points on often leaves me slipping and sliding on the slick rain forest paths. The absence of cartilage in my right knee from an accident in the Sierras of California years earlier weakens my strength in my right leg and therefore leaves me somewhat off balance.

He turns, glances at me sitting, and insists, 'Stand up," in his unremarkable Aussie twang. Looking in his direction, I do as I am told, unaware of why he would want me on my feet, a bit perplexed.

He strides back to me, turns me around, and plucks two black pencil lead wiggling fellows off my shoulders. Overhanging the lovely bench had been fronds of rain forest palms. And dangling from the greenery were several black devils, two of which were just waiting for some unsuspecting tourist to stop. Dinner for a month.

They don't have to eat very often, these wiggling black beasts. They may be only three centimetres long as they begin their attack, but they have the ability to attach and grow to nine centimetres becoming full on human blood syringes. Their only redeeming grace is that they not only insert an anticoagulant in one's blood stream but also an anaesthesia to keep one from feeling their attachment.

Ugh! Thanks Graham for rescuing me from the wiggles.

We walk on. Every muscle winces for the rest of the afternoon. I find myself less impressed with the scenery across the ridgelines and far more involved in checking out who is dangling from which plants near the track. Stay-a-while vines that previously had been an attraction turn into possible homes for wiggling interlopers looking for a hitch hike on my forearms. Low lying ground clover becomes a hiding place for tiny Draculas.

Watching carefully, we manage to surprise a venomous Red-bellied Black Snake resting in the mottled sunshine of the trail covered with low growing vines. Obviously, not very many people had trod this track in a while or so I think. Graham assures me that one really can't tell. The rain forest has the ability to quickly recover from whatever human interference comes to it. We wait patiently as the black fellow with a red belly continues his morning nap. Finally, from a safe distance we toss a few rocks just past his spot on the trail to alert him to our presence. Eventually he slithers on to another spot to sun in the autumn afternoon.

Now there was even more for me to see. Poisonous snakes, daughters of Dracula, my imagination creates anxiety levels reaching the point where it is impossible to notice much of anything. My heart is beating so fast; my breath is so short that just moving forward becomes an issue of concentration.

However, for the next few hours we encounter only whip bird songs and brush turkey meanderings. I begin to relax. We reached the Southern Ramparts, a high spot on the Lamington Track where we can look south over the caldera of Mt. Warning across the state border into New South Wales. After the last volcanic eruption of a mountain higher at one time than Everest, all that is left is a plug, albeit, a plug seen by Captain Cook when he sailed the east coast of Australia in 17….. The valley surrounding the plug is an amazing array of farmlands, sugar cane plantations, and gum tree forests through which the Clarence and Tweed Rivers wend their way. Rosella, King Parrots, lauralkeets and a variety of other daytime high flyers distract me from any discomfort I may feel from our 10-kilometer trek to the Border Track.

I am hungry as is Graham, who from his pack digs out plastic food containers prepared by the Binna Burra Lodge that morning. We sip on cardboard/aluminium drink containers through those tiny little plastic straws and munch dried fruits and nuts, fruit bread, a bun, ham, cheese, and left overs from the previous nights roast. As I am particularly enjoying my chocolate candies and gelatine worms, the real thing catches my eye. Up my white socks, a brigade of three centimetre long black pencil leads wiggle towards my calves. Not one, not two, but four of the little black devils are on the attack. Yikes. Stamp, stamp, stamp to no avail. These guys have their hooks in my wick dry wool socks and are somersaulting up my ankle towards my calf. They, too, are in search of dessert.

Graham stands there and laughs as I try to intercede in the journey of the critters. I stop for a second to see if there are others attacking his boots. No. He has slathered Deet on his boot tops to dissuade the marchers from entering sacred territory.

I had chosen to avoid the poisonous stuff. No more. As I entreat him to find the bottle of Deet in his daypack, he once more digs into the bottom of the pack, brings out the precious Deet and promptly sprays the interlopers. They shrivel: I laugh. You betcha, American to the core, I delight in their death throes. Die you little bloodsuckers. None of my blood for you today.

Eating loses its interest. I pack up my daypack, sling it on my back after carefully checking to see if it has any free loaders attached and start back down the trail. I really don't know where I am going. I only know I am leaving leech heaven to the leeches. I am heading back to my home away from home, my room at the lodge where there will be a shower and a mirror in which I can investigate every inch of my body to be sure there are no more native critters hitching a ride.

Graham just smiles, finishes his lunch, packs up his goods, and with his long Australian striding legs catches up with me in no time. He chuckles out loud as he catches up with me walking forward but looking down at my boots screaming expletives at the tiny leeches trying to crawl up the back last of my boots headed for my calves. He asks me to stop while he sprays Deet along the tops of the back of my boots and socks. You know, I will never go to the rain forest with socks folded down again. From now on knee socks, thick heavy-duty knee socks, are the attire of the day. Actually, only in autumn do the moist showers of late summer grow black pencil leads along the stems of all the lovely deep green growth of Lamington National Park.

As for working together as a community, sharing all we own with each other. I didn't offer my chocolate candies to the man who saved me from the leeches, but only because I had already stuffed myself full before I realized I was under attack. Next time, I will offer to share. After all, whom else do you know who will pinch a tick out of your shoulder and wash your socks after leeches burrow through the eyeholes in your boots to attack the top of your foot. The hungry little bloodsuckers were squashed to death by the tight laces as they engorge themselves and grew too large for the space they invaded. What's mine is his, especially on the track in a rain forest.

And Lorraine, yes, what's mine is hers. She is the one who gives me the time, the support, and the reason to share these journeys. She is the editor, friend, fellow traveller with whom I feel comfortable sharing these tales of a northern hemisphere dweller in southern hemisphere wilderness. It is she for whom I write. It is our relationship, our friendship that encourages my art.