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Kanga and her baby Roo, from the infamous Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne, lived with Pooh in the Hundred Acre Woods. The appearance of a home-grown native animal in an English story book, while being raised on the English Canon, served to reinforce my love for these Australian animals (as a city-bred child I rarely encountered them myself outside of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo). Kanga’s character in the book reflects the characters of the wallabies/kangaroos that now surround my house at all hours of the day/night. Like Kanga they are pretty, observant, loyal and unequivocally devoted parents. Also like Kanga their one Dislike is … Any Threat to Roo!
Dragons are fascinating creatures, myths and legends abound in the ancient tales of disparate cultures and their presence remains well represented in modern fairytales and teen narratives such as the Harry Potter series. The first dragon that made an impact on me was Puff the Magic Dragon who was immortalised in Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1969 song. Puff’s origins can be traced to a poem by Leonard Lipton, who in turn found his inspiration in the Ogden Nash poem Custard the Dragon.
The story was one of several my older sister and I had on single LPs in the 70s, a collection that included Danny Kaye’s rendition of Tubby the Tuba complete with musical sound effects (Tubby was overlooked and disparaged until his contribution to the orchestra was seen to be just as important as that of the more vivacious and egotistical violins). Another favourite was The Chinese Children Next Door by Pearl Buck, a story about her Chinese neighbour who fathered an inordinate amount of girl babies (becoming increasingly disinterested and despondent each time) until he produced the greatly revered Son, thus setting him back on the path of happiness and social standing.
But I digress. Puff the friendly dragon always seemed like such a nice fellow to my sister and I who also, ‘lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mists’ so we had a lot to bond over. He was also the epitome of childhood imaginings, a skill I was exceedingly good at. Because of Puff the native dragons of Australia have always occupied a particularly fond place in my heart and this little Eastern Water-Dragon is no exception.
Eastern Water-Dragons are semi-aquatic lizards that are found along the east coast of Australia. They normally live around creeks, rivers or lakes. They can remain submerged for up to 30 minutes and rise to the surface where they are able to breathe to check the area for danger, before emerging back onto land.
This one was relaxing on a little tree stump when I joined him beside the Richmond River in the northern NSW township of Woodburn. We had a catch up on what Puff was up to these days and how much the revered Son had been eclipsed by the talents of his illustrious sisters.
Sydney Harbour is the most breathtaking expanse of water surrounded by sandy coves and cliffs. Boats entering the harbour traverse a stretch of water between formidable cliffs known as North Head and South Head (not very imaginative of the early pioneers).
I grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney and North Head Sanctuary with its wild, exposed cliff tops, sense of isolation, delicate flora and fauna and World War 2 tunnels and gun emplacements (great cubbies when we were young) has remained one of my favourite ‘city’ places, a must see on every trip back home.
You can’t help but come away feeling revitalised by the pure force of the wind, the crash of the waves battering the crumbling cliffs or the tenacity of the scrubby melaluca and banksia. There are seven banksia in the area, the most common is called Old Man Banksia, it is one of the first plants discovered by Joseph Banks and the creamy flowers are a favourite with birds.
It is also the banksia Australians associate with the ‘bad, bad, banksia men’ of May Gibbs children’s classic Snugglepot and Cuddlepie that I mentioned in an earlier post.
The whole area owes its survival to its early use as a quarantine station as well as a defence post. For practical purposes the surrounding area was left in its natural state and the army kept civilians, non-native animals and developers out.
Over time its worth as a flora and fauna reserve was recognised and the area became officially protected.
The wattles foliage is so thick that trunks are hidden behind masses of elongated, yellow flowers and pale, oblong leaves. Banksia exposed to the wind are twisted and bent, they hunker down together like a football scrum creating sheltered copses and nooks for the birds and kangaroos. Those growing in the lee of the headland grow tall and strong flouting their independence. The most prolific type has pale, green/silver leaves and either yellow or orange flower heads, each made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of tiny individual flowers grouped together.
The pandanus have a tenacity that I admire. They drop their seed onto dry sand where it is picked up and flung by the tide to new destinations. The orange seeds whither and turn brown but can retain their ability to grow for years. When conditions are right they take off with vigour, as they gain height they rise like skyscrapers, supporting their top-heavy branches by sinking exposed roots into loose sand and small crevices between rocks.
These plants are common to the entire east coast of Australia, they are like old friends that have accompanied me through life. When I was a child my sister and I played in the shade of pandanus that fringed the beaches we visited on camping holidays, just as my own children did on hot summer days near the beach where we lived. Wattle trees grew in my parent’s garden and later in my own garden and were a favourite with the native birds. Banksia have been a constant fixture on all the headlands and bush walks I have enjoyed and played an important role in my seduction into the world of books.
In the literary tradition of Australian children I grew up with May Gibbs Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, a wonderful creative story about gumnut babies, talking lizards and most notably the, ‘bad, bad, banksia men’.