‘Eaglehawk Girl. A Freerange Child’ is launched.

‘Eaglehawk Girl’ is a memoir of my free range childhood in Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia in the 1950s.

Brolga Publishing and I launched it on Wednesday, October 24.

It’s available from Australian bookshops, Booktopia and will be available on US Amazon in a few weeks.

The content fits into Eaglehawk Childhood here on the blog.

Happy reading.

The book is googlable under the title.

For some reason the image of the cover is lying down. Sorry.

Liz Low

 

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The Last Swim of Summer

Published in The Age. 29 APRIL. 2018

It was only a few days ago, that I was thinking about having my last swim of summer. The swimmable days had kept on coming, way past Easter. By now, my beach towel was stiff and heavy with salt and I was starting to wonder when I’d give it a wash.

As a kid in the 1950s, I never thought of a particular swim as being the last one of the season. Each time I went swimming, I’d race into the sandy bottomed, concrete walled Eaglehawk baths to play as usual and not think much about whether I was cold or not. By Easter, I was so distracted by the Bendigo Easter Fair and the dragons, processions and sideshows that I didn’t even think of swimming. Then, sometime during winter, I’d ride down to the Park and see that the pool had been drained and the sand lay dry and open to the sky.

Outdoor pools with fences and turnstiles are predictable. The Bendigo Pool would always close sometime during the week after Easter and that would be the end of my teenage swimming until November.

The unpredictability continued through my adult working parent life. We lived at Warrandyte for over 20 years and we swam in the Yarra. Each year, by March, we were all embedded back at work and school, and took fewer and fewer walks along the dusty track which threaded towards the swimming hole through the bush reserve between our back fences and the river.

My last swim would be a bit like this. Along the track, I heard the creaking of the ‘witch’s tree’ which used to scare our kids, noted the corner where our oldest daughter rode over a snake, crossed the firebreak separating the last house from the Koornong Reserve and reached the bank above the swimming hole.

The reeds and willows had started to dry off, the air felt quiet and the sun warmed my back. Down at the water’s edge, I felt coolness as the river exhaled. The end-of-summer water level was low and the upstream reef stretched almost across the river to the bank of Jumping Creek Reserve. The ‘sitting rocks’ on the downstream reef were high and dry. I breathed in the familiar smell of muddy river water and stepped into the gravel and mud bottomed river. The band of warmth on the surface of the water was very thin and the cold rose up my legs until I had to make myself push off and swim. It was freezing and I swam out to where the current grabbed me, floated down with it a bit and headed back to shore. All rather fast!

At home, I’d need a shower to warm up and wash off the river smell.

Since thinking about these last swims, a huge autumnal cold change banged in from the South West, bringing actual cold air and rain.  I’ve washed my beach towel.

As usual, my last swim has been retrospective!

Great Barrier Reef Swimming.

 

I’ve been off the boat for twenty seven hours now and I’m still swaying slightly. For a week, I’ve been moving on board the Coral Princess as she cruised the Great Barrier Reef’s outer reefs and islands or with the motion of the Coral Sea as I snorkeled through the warm tropical reef waters.

Our first snorkeling was off a small island where we had moored. Before we swam, we had a glass bottom boat tour over the reef and were introduced to the coral and fish. The density and colour of the coral was really interesting to see because the only other coral I had previously seen was brown and disappointing. From shore, I waded awkwardly in fins, a too tight wet suit, and the new feeling of a mask and a snorkel before whooshing ahead to discover an undulating world of Technicolor coral and fish.

The fish leapt into life in velvety iridescence. Their markings were vibrant and electric: blue, bright yellow, emerald green, purple, orange and every other colour and pattern combination possible. Large, lorikeet hued parrot fish pushed and nudged at the coral as they fed on the algae, reminding me of a hungry baby butting away at a breast. Curtains of tiny damsel fish hung trembling in the deeper pale blue regions as squadrons of fast swimming blue, black and white fish streamed past. A pair of round yellow, white and black striped butterfly fish posed for a moment before wiggling off-stage.

That’s only a fraction of what I saw. I felt there was too much to take in: the colours, shapes, groupings and movements defied words and I decided to stop thinking about what I was looking at and just float around with them all.

And then there was the coral, the backdrop to the free moving fish. The colouring of the coral was similar to the fish but muted and they too had a large variety of forms: large rounded forms like the mustard coloured boulder corals or the brown and yellow honeycomb sprawling across the reef. The branching corals in white with iridescent blue tips or just plain electric violet contrasted with the velvety contoured and curved elephant ear corals ina yellowy green. The soft corals waved with the current: a faded mauve one on a white trunk flourished its tendrils and the brownish spaghetti coral waved like a carpet of long grass.

Many days, we swam off the back of the boat. By then, I’d jettisoned the wetsuit and the fins and swam in just bathers, a sunscreen Tee shirt and reef sandals with, of course, the all important mask and snorkel. It felt free and easy like that and I loved just slipping into the water without a lot of fuss. There were times when I was swimming with no sight of land at all, with the moored boat the only fixed point. If I was quick, I could be first in the water and feel that I was the only human in the sea for miles and miles around. We would have buoys to swim within and were watched over by at least two crew members all the time. Unlike Victorian waters there was no shark threat, no strong currents and the water was WARM! It felt really safe.

Out on the Ribbon Reefs, further from shore, the water was clearer and the coral spectacular. It was basically the same as our first swim but, now, brighter and absolutely in focus. I could see the polyps let out from the coral swaying as they fed from the passing water. I could stop and float above a colony and observe in fine detail the branching forms, the colour gradations and the tiny fish nudging through the branches feeding within the safety of the coral branches.

In many ways it felt like floating above a forest. The reef resembled trees, shrubs and grasses with the fish being particularly exuberantly coloured birds flying through the branches. Sometimes I felt that I could be looking at an Alpine rock garden. In other places there would be a barren patch of sea floor covered in white broken coral branches which had been knocked over by a cyclone, looking just like a storm damaged forest. Over this white floor there could be a sea cucumber – black, leopard or the spiky pineapple type- perhaps curved like a fat comma as it munched its way through the fallen detritus, excreting it as white coral sand.

Each swim, I would look out for giant clams. Sometimes there would be an isolated clam on a patch of coral sand but often they would appear in pairs or trios. I was intrigued by the different colourings inside their curving shells but never saw a better grouping than one on our first Ribbon Reef swim. The zooxanthellae algae which live in the clam’s mantle develop different colours and in this group, the biggest clam was vibrant blue-violet with green spots (the clam’s ‘eyes’), another had produced a brown and gold leopard skin pattern and the third was an emerald green with yellow spots. These clams were about 70 cms to a metre in length. We learnt that clams actually close quite slowly to about 80% closed and then take much longer to completely shut, so the story of getting feet caught in clams is a bit of a myth.

There was a different type of smaller clam which burrowed into the boulder corals and just presented their white rims and coloured mantles. They could be closed into parallel white squiggles or could be partially open and feeding with their coloured mantles open to the moving water.

From the boat, the reefs would show against the blue as roughly circular brown patches of varying sizes. It was these we swam over, feeling in quite close contact to the life a metre or so below us. At the edge of the reef the sea floor dropped into a glowing, deepening blue. Fish numbers dropped right off. At first I had a strange feeling of perhaps not wanting to go too close to the edge, almost a fear of falling but then when I did ‘jump’ and kicked out over above the blue it was like floating and flying. However, this first time was a bit uneasy as I was outside the buoys by then and it seemed too far on the edge. It was quite good to flip around and return to the security of the reef life. The next time, however, it was really good and I loved floating in what felt like a strange zone of water and sky.

I’m going to miss the moment of anticipation as I sit on the diving platform at the back of the Coral Princess before pushing off into that extraordinary reef world. Writing this piece has helped me consolidate the memory.

 

 

THAMES SWIM

I sat on the edge of the little jetty. The rowing boats for hire to the right and the small motor boats to the left jostled quietly on their mooring ropes. The sloping beach of the old ferry landing place opposite was empty now; the dogs, horses, bikes,children and their parents had gone home at the end of a long hot afternoon.

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I could see the gravelly bottom with one largish rock maybe a metre under my feet. It looked alright to land on but I wished I was wearing some reef sandals. I was a bit nervous about pushing off and sliding in as I hadn’t done that for years and years and hoped I wouldn’t scrape my back.

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Right! It’s time to do it!

Aah! My feet touched bottom, the water came to just above my waist,the gravel was a bit slimy but alright and I was IN. The water was soft and cool, not even ‘bracing’, and I whooshed out away from shore past the undulating waterweed to the right. With feet off the bottom, I was weightless, floating and bobbing and all the heat and humidity of the day vanished in that moment. I rolled onto my back, kicked and paddled, then ducked under to feel the water on my scalp. A swim is not a proper swim if I don’t feel the cool water all over my head and feel my hair floating.

 

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I did hold my nose to do this, as I wasn’t entirely sure of the cleanliness of the river. People had been swimming opposite and the water didn’t smell so I thought it would be clean enough despite its rather solid greenness. When I looked at it closely, the water seemed to be packed with vitamized greenery like a very thin breakfast drink of kale and other green leafy vegetables. And then a blob of swan poo floated past at eye level. ‘Well’, I thought, ‘there’s a lot of water to dilute that’, and swam out further towards the middle.

And here was the living river. It pushed against the whole length of my body, no teasing bits of isolated current, but a strong, steady pressure which definitely got my attention. It was time to concentrate on swimming as I was already down past the motor boats. It felt good to head back upstream against it- a whole ten metres- and move in out of the current and enjoy the experience of actually swimming in the Thames.

I’d always wanted to be in a house on the banks of the Thames, in its freshwater state, to see what it would be like to be so close to the water all the time. The descriptions of an English river in The Wind in the Willows and the adventures of Ratty, Mole and Toad had had an astonishing dream like quality to a Australian child with no familiarity with fresh, flowing water or soft, green plants. So when I found a National Trust cottage, Ferry Cottage, on the towpath beside the Thames, on the Cliveden Estate,, it seemed a perfect opportunity to satisfy that dream. And it did.

I will remember floating in the water,looking across that famous and beautiful river stretching at eye level to the banks with their huge soft green trees leaning right down to almost touch the water. I’ll remember sharing the water with the two swans (I have to fight not to say ‘white’ swans in England) who lived on that stretch of water and would occasionally regally visit and with the flocks of Canada geese whose raucousness at night rivalled sulphur crested cockatoos.

Mostly, I’ll remember my astonishment and delight at finding myself swimming in the Thames.

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