A decade ago, the road did not go all the way down to the lake.
Its downward plunge stopped dead against a giant timber buttress.
Painted white, the buttress gave space to spread a meal of fish
and chips from the local wharf : and time to listen to the bird song.
Below it, the Bush grew thickly.
To the right of the buttress, down into the Bush and towards the
lake, a narrow dirt track led off into the greenery. This track
had been made by the local Oysterman, to reach his oyster leases
in the lake and tidal inlet below. From the top of the track
you could only glimpse the lake - bright points of silver through
the grey-green of the Bush.
Walking down the track took you into the forest. Thickets of
Black Wattle between giant Eucalypts a hundred and more feet high,
so large that they must have been full trees when Captain Cook
sailed by two hundred years before. Though covered
with creepers, the Wattle's presence showed the land had been cleared a
generation or two ago, perhaps for a farm the forest had since
Other leafy denizens were also well evident along the track. Tree Ferns
clustered in the shadier corners, and native Maidenhair and Sickle
Ferns were thick as grass in places.
The track rambled downwards,
now thickly overgrown with creeper and the damp smell of rotting
leaf mulch, at other times allowing views of the lake and the
mountains beyond. From one point you could see the ocean, beyond
the scrub covered sand spit, beyond the eastern reaches of the
lake. Here and there in sunny openings, bright lizards basked.
Deeper into the Bush, soft-eyed Black Wallabies watched quietly as you passed.
And the bush was thick with bird calls : the sharp clear sweep of
the Whip-bird, the continual silvery tinkle of the Bell-birds, and multitudes
of others to delight the bird-watcher and bewilder the casual
As the track wound further down, the hillside became less steep,
the forest thinned and you emerged onto the rocky promontory that
leads out into the lake.
The rock here is a mauve-pink shale. It is the sediment left
over from the volcanic island arc that first formed this landscape
in Silurian times, four hundred million years ago. The colouring
is the trace left behind from iron rich run-off from those ancient
volcanoes, whose weathered stumps still form the mountains to the west.
Nowadays, the shale has decayed into flakes that make fine
skipping stones. At all but low tide when the sand flats are
exposed, you can skip these fragments out across the lake.
glancing blow spreads ripples that link with previous loops,
cluster and disappear where the stone sinks to the sand below.
If you sit quietly you will see other ripples, betraying the
presence of fish. Many of them are puffer fish that skim quietly
between sand and water surface. At other times, bigger disturbances
occur, culminating with the fish - a mullet perhaps - leaping
out of the water, chased by some unseen predator.
There are other hunters at work, too. At low tide, the occasional
fishermen wades with rod and tackle box out into the lake, to
the course of the main channel where the fish are plentiful.
Standing motionless against the reflection of the mountains beyond,
he is accompanied by herons and cranes. These feathered companions
far predate the fisherman. They have been seeking fish here
for millions of years, interrupted only by the Ice Ages that drop
the water-level and turn the brackish inlet into dry sandy plain.
Today the lake is edged with mangroves; some old and
gnarled, here long before white man, others mere shoots,
last year's seedlings. Their breathing fingers poke out all along the lake shore, searching for oxygen above the
anaerobic mud. Between the mangrove fingers, the tracery of mollusc
trails, marking the path of small predators in search of tiny
The molluscs in their turn have been prey. Here and there along the shore, lie dumps of ancient shells, left
by the first peoples where they caught and cooked shellfish, over
countless generations. Close your eyes and listen to the wind.
In fancy you can hear the soft voices of the shellfish gatherers.
Out on the sand flats, ibises wander singly. Off-white, with
darker heads, they are the ghosts of their scarlet cousins
in the Caribbean. Like their cousins, they are hunting crabs
beneath the sand.
And crabs there are a-plenty. When the tide falls and the
water seeps back from the sand and mud, the surface moves to the
scraping of countless tiny claws.
The battalions emerge from
their sandy cocoons, responding to the tidal rhythm, the drying
flats a parade ground for myriads of tiny blue and ochre soldiers.
They meander across the strand in tight formations, ceaselessly
sifting tiny morsels from the sand, on the watch for predators
or their shadows. If the alarm sounds, the crabs disappear, spiralling
downwards into the soft tidal soil. In just a few seconds, only
the mottled sand remains for predators to regard.
Farther out, the Oyster Catchers are also on the prowl. With
smart black heads and red beak and feet, they favour the strand
furthest from the shoreline. Despite their name, they do not
steal the oysters laid out on the barnacled wooden frames set
up by the Oysterman. He has no quarrel with the Oyster Catchers.
Their wistful cries carry across the sand flats, an ancient sound
of wild and distant places.
Out on the water, always far from shore and from the fisherman
and oyster frames, black swans drift in idle groups. From time
to time, pelicans float low across the water, in breast to breast
formation with their reflections. They land near the fisherman
like silent flying boats, hoping to profit from his catch.
Throughout the day, the sunlight and clouds sculpt images on the
mountains and the lake. In summer, the high sun picks out in
white arcs the far sandy edges of the shore. In winter storms,
the lake shines bright as steel.
But now the sun is lowering, the day is fading, the tide is
returning, the crabs are a-bed.
It is time to
work homewards up the Oysterman's track, from the shoreline, back
into the forest, towards the rising moon.
As you climb into the darkness of the forest dusk, a sense of unease grows. Things are not as they were. The track is not the same. The track that weaved up through the Bush is no longer there. Things have changed.
up the old Oysterman's track, you emerge onto concrete guttering
and suburbia. The forest has made
way for housing. Some of the trees still stand, but many a forest
giant is gone. What was a treetop roost for the Ibis or the Sea
Eagle is now somebody's patio with scenic views.
The buttress is gone. So too the track through the forest. In
its place, the sterile geometry of the engineering plan, storm
water drain and streetlights.
But all the while the Bush lingers at the edges, waiting. The
lake and the tides remain, and will be there still, when housing
and suburbia and roads have vanished into rainforest, like the
farm before them.
Then, perhaps, a new Oysterman will cut a track down
through the Bush, following, unknowingly, an earlier path.
Copyright © David Nicholls 1997. The tidal inlet and lake of this story is real. The photographs here are of that inlet. The Oysterman is still there, but his track no longer exists. The birds still feed on the sand flats. They must now fly much further to find a roosting tree. The world is not a better place for the development that has taken place. But some developer is richer, and no doubt an accountant sitting behind his mean desk in the city is happy.