Australia journal - June 1999

Binna Burra

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Binna Burra, June 21-23

Driving on the left does take some mental rearranging.

The car was a Nissan something-or-other.  The gas pedal, brake and clutch are in their accustomed places at my feet, but the turn signal is on the right and the windshield wiper switch (aka the "dumb guy" switch, per Bill Cosby) is on the left.  And sure enough, I hit the wipers several times when I meant to signal a turn.  I also fought the impulse to let go of whatever I was holding with my left hand to grab the steering wheel so I could shift with my right - oops!  That was the gearshift, in my left hand!

The windshield wipers themselves are designed for left-hand drive: The full-screen wipe is on the left, and the driver's (right) side gets a partial wipe and the edge of the other side's wiper travel.

Remembering to stay on the left side of the road is one challenge, and staying in the lane is another: with a lifetime habit of being in the left side of the car, it feels very weird to be on the right -- so there's a constant impulse to "correct" by drifting to the left. But I covered the hundred or so kilometers without incident.  More than once, however, when we went back to the car after stopping somwhere, I went to the left door and Rita to the right, and then we'd sheepishly trade sides.

I would think it would be in the rent-a-car companies' best interests to make cars with automatic transmissions available to American customers (and for that matter, to put a yellow flashing light on top and a sign that says "AMERICAN DRIVER!" on top).  I  don't think it's even possible to get a manual transmission on a rent-a-car in the States, unless you're paying insane premiums for a sports car or something.

We had expected Highway 1 to be a wild, scenic coastal road, but from Brisbane all the way to Nerang was one long stretch of highway construction and suburban development.  Our dinner companions later explained that the original plan had been to build a new highway a kilometer or so away from the existing one, but that route would have gone through koala country and there was a massive public outcry. So instead, the new highway is being built on top of the old one. "It helps to know that when you're navigating the construction area," said Brenda.

"Definitely worth the inconvenience," I said.

The Gold Coast was visible from the road during our climb into the mountains -- an obscene-looking stretch of tall buildings right on the ocean, like Miami Beach rising up out of an otherwise pretty unspoiled coastline.  Binna Burra is 30 km from the coast in Lamington National Park, and although the ocean is visible through a notch in the mountains, the high-rise section is not apparent.

On our first evening at Binna Burra, I stood on the balcony of our cabin and watched the pink fade from a thin layer of clouds over the ocean as the sun set behind us.  The main lodge, at the top of this hill, had a even more impressive view in this direction and a whole 'nother one to the west. As in the Blue Mountains, there aren't a lot of peaks -- but there are a couple of pointy features visible from here. This area is a long-extinct volcano, and one of the many hikes available takes us into the vicinity of the caldera itself.

The sunset view from the main lodge was awesome. A wide vista looking out across the valleys to the silhouette of the farthest ridge line, above which rose a fiery sunset, fading to yellow and then merging into pale blue, which in turn grew darker as it rose into the night sky above. One bright, bright evening star shone toward the north, and from the south-southwest horizon rose a dappled band of backlit cloud that stretched all the way up to where we were and beyond.

Dinner was communal, as were all meals at Binna Burra. We sat with a young couple from Brisbane and two older women, from Canberra and Cairns respectively, dear friends having something of a reunion here. Conversation was pleasant and mutually informative, and we hung out there with Sue and Brenda until the staff's clean-up operation made it clear that it was time for us to vacate. Then Rita and I went walking under that huge sky in that half-moon night, marveling again at the Milky Way and wondering if that bright orange star was Mars. We know only the Southern Cross; the rest of this hemisphere's constellations are a mystery to us.

We walked quietly down the road away from the cabins, hoping to see some of the nocturnal marsupial life we were assured is thriving all around. We did see a few dark lumps hopping around in the clearings, but nothing came close enough to us to communicate or be identified. We went back to our room and read books borrowed form the lodge library; my chosen volume was Landforms of Australia, a 1967-vintage pictorial book with chapters on "The work of sun and air," "The work of wind and rain," "The work of rivers and ice," "The work of plants and animals," and additional chapters based on geological regions. This continent has a tremendous variety of geological forms.

The atmosphere is different from moment to moment here at Binna Burra. At 7:00 Tuesday morning I went up to the lodge to get a cup of coffee, and I stood on the hilltop looking in all directions and enjoying the bird sounds. To the northeast, there was a thin wisp of fog in the valley below, and a few kilometers beyond that was a thick layer of cotton on the surface of Hinze Dam, which supplies water to the Gold Coast beyond. Looking farther off in the same direction, the sun reflected blindingly off the patch of ocean visible through a notch in the mountains. There were thick clouds on the ocean, many miles offshore, but the sky above us was clear and bright.

At breakfast we sat at a table full of teenagers to whom we were utterly invisible. Couldn't get any kind of conversation going, and eye contact was minimal. They spent most of their time arguing over the day's plans, how far each was willing to walk, how long it took to go a given distance ("it depends: if it's flat, it won't take as long"), etc. We enjoyed our breakfast and refrained from making fools of ourselves by trying to speak to the kids.

The meal service is elaborate and varied. A broad selection of hot and cold cereals, seven or eight kinds of juice, Milo (chocolate milk, with chocolate bits floating on the top -- explained to me by a teenage girl I asked about it as I stood by the serving table), cow's milk, soy milk, etc. And the hot breakfast offered poached eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, some sort of crumbed vegetable cake, mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, and baked beans. Baked beans? A popular item, I observed.

After breakfast we overheard a Binna Burra interpreter organizing a group of kids for a brief lecture before an outing.  "No sitting there like Prince Charles," he told one boy.  "Put that chair away and sit down here [on the floor] with the rest of the kids."

We walked down the road to the Lamington Park information centre, where the Caves Track begins.  We stopped in for a visit with the volunteer worker, a nice older woman from Brisbane who regaled us with stories of the Stephens's Banded Snake that lives in the bathroom of the workers' quarters.  "They're very territorial and aggressive," she explained.  "When I'm working here I insist that the light be left on in the loo all night, because I do not want to be surprised in there!"

When we asked for some water to fill our bottle for the hike, she invited us to use the tap there in the visitor centre.  "It's rain water, and it's delicious!" she exclaimed.  "We can't let everyone use the bathrooms here, because the water supply is limited.  But I always make sure to wash my hair when I come up here to work, because the water is so pure."  And very tasty water it was, too, as we discovered when we tasted it during our hike.

The Caves Track took us down along the steep mountain side, several hundred feet above the canyon floor.  We beheld a rich variety of plant life, including huge ancient trees of different types that have grown together and intertwined over the years; vines that have spiraled around trees, causing their "hosts" to develop twists. We marveled at huge, smooth-barked eucalyptus trees that grew a hundred feet or more straight up from the steep hillsides, with foliage only in their upper reaches - and the sight and sound of that foliage swaying in the breeze -- yum!

We were also impressed by the weird epiphytes: plants that grow up in the branches of tall trees, most notably the strangler fig, which begins life as a seed in the droppings of a bird, germinates high in the canopy, sends roots downward, and - if it succeeds in its mission - winds up killing its host.

Our lunch companions on Tuesday were Steve and Lizz, an Assie couple in their late 20s; American-born Jeff and his Australian wife, Sylvia, and Dave and Lynn LeBlanc of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Jeff and Dave were old friends from their days in the US Forest Service, for whom Dave still works.  We had a stimulating and informative conversation about sustainable forestry, the evils of Charles Hurwitz, the fanatical short-sightedness of knee-jerk environmentalists, etc. There was a lot of laughter exchanged along with some serious and useful information.

During lunch, David, the ruddy and upbeat interpreter, came around to all the tables to invite us all to take a ride on the flying fox -- a cable suspended above a gentle canyon down the hill from the lodge.  After returning to our rooms for a few minutes to change clothes and make preparations, all eight of us from the lunch table met ousde the lodge and took a walk down the road, turned off on the 4WD track as directed, crossed a small creek and arrived at the flying fox -- along with about two dozen children and a dozen or so other adults. Bush turkeys wandered nonchalantly among the humans.

David demonstrated the harness we were all to wear, explained how the contraption worked and the protocol for taking a ride (someone has to be waiting under the rider when he/she came to rest in the middle, above the hillside where we were standing now; that person would hold the descender rope and help the rider down, then drag the flying fox back up to the launching platform and become the next in line for a ride), and then invited the group to take the narnesses and hard hats from two boxes at his feet and queue up.  "We can probably do abut a dozen people per hour," he said -- optimistically, at it turned out.

There were maybe a dozen harnesses and hats, and the very enthusiastic kids snatched them all up before the creaky old adults could even get up off our bums.  We decided to stay put and let them all take their turns -- which might still have allowed us to ride had not a car arrived and disgorged a pair of Aussie families with another half-dozen energetic and attractive children, all of whom fell right in with the existing clump of kids.  Some grumbling was heard from the oldsters on the bench, but the only responsible adult who attempted to speak up for fairness and order was ignored by the two mums -- and as the flying fox rides commenced at a pace closer to six or eight per hour than twelve, the Gang of Eight began to discuss other alternatives for spending the afternoon.

Dave and Lynn and Jeff and Syl took off for a brief hike, intending to return later on when the crowd had thinned out; Steve actually managed to score a harness, which did not guarantee him a place in line as long as all those colluding kids were passing harnesses and hats from sibling to sibling (When the eight of us gathered again for dinner, Steve and Lizz reported that they did indeed get their chances to ride,  right around dusk some time, and enjoyed the experience quite a lot).  Rita and I watched for a while before taking a hike back toward the lodge via the so-and-so lookout trail, and along the way we overtook Sue and Brenda taking the same route in from their hike.  We talked about birds for a while; Sue had, despite having been warned it was highly unlikely, seen the bird she had hoped to add to her collection of sightings: the Regent Bowerbird.  We walked together to the top of the trail, where it emerges into the open area between the lodge parking lot and the campground area down the hill.  The ladies were planning to cook out this evening, and they were hoping the threatened rain would not materialize.

As we walked up the driveway from the campground toward the lodge -- along the ridge between two valleys -- a fine misting rain began to fall.  To the west, a blazing golden sunset with mist in the near distance and some streaks of heavy clouds rimmed with gold near the horizon; to the east, a giant rainbow rose up from the valley below and up into the fat clouds above our heads. Later I stood on the knob outside the lodge, looking down into the mists in three directions and listening to the wind in the gum trees close at hand, and slowly my attention turned to the west, where the sky was afire even more impressively than yesterday.  Golden beams shone through the fine rain below my feet; at the horizon the clouds were glowing from behind; and thirty degrees above, the sky was a rich tropical blue unlike anything I have ever seen before. All this while little clutches of fat clouds sprayed a fine mist down on Binna Burra.  Rita and I sat in awestruck silence until the sun was entirely out of view, leaving a golden glow in its wake.

Evening nature walk - David the interpreter, wearing only a sweater and wool pants.  "Aren't you going to wear any more clothes?" someone asked.  "I haven't got any," he replied.  A great character!   Out we went in the blustery night, David waving his high-powered torch into the trees and bushes in search of the reflections from nocturnal retinas.  A large cloud bank loomed in the sky to the southeast; David said by tomorrow the wind would be coming from the east, and that's where the rain comes from.  In the western sky shone a brilliant half moon, illuminating a scattering of clouds from behind with a cool, eerie glow against the black sky.

A pair of pademelons and a frogmouth were all the living things we saw, but along the way David pointed out the Southern Cross, Alpha and Beta Centaurus, and the constellation Scorpio.  He explained the motion of the Southern Cross and the pointer pair around the south pole and how to reckon due south.

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