Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

WELCOME TO MY MOUNTAIN

A QUOLL IN THE KITCHEN

SNEAKY SKINK

MINI-MICE

KOOKABURRA KINGDOM

TWO-BY-TWO

CONSORTING COUPLES

OUT OF THE FIRE...

REDNECK BOYS

RED-BELLIED SQUATTERS

ROSIES ARE RED

AQUATIC JEWELS

WILD CHILD DAY CARE

A BATHFUL OF TADPOLES

SEEKING A MATE?

POOLSIDE LOUNGERS

FREE TO GOOD HOME...

THE GUZZLER

JACKY DRAGON

MACROPOD MOTHERS’ CLUB

SNAKE PERVERSITY

PESKY POSSUMS

SHY YET SHOWY GOANNAS

PRAYING FOR PREY

THE QUOLL KIDS

LOST KOALAS

THE NIGHT MONSTER

NIGHT TIME IS OUR TIME

SKY LORDS

A QUESTION OF MURDER

BREAKING AND ENTERING

LYREBIRD LADS

SPIKY VISITOR

HORSE DILEMMAS

MASTER OF ART

RUSTY ARISTOCRATS

A QUESTING COCKATOO

THE LONELY EMU

WALLABY WEIRDO

ELEGANT, NEGLIGENT DUCKS

MYSTERY THIEF

INEDIBLE EDIBLE GRUBS

PETRIFIED BIRDS

MISSING TAILS

ADDENDUM

CONTACTS

SOURCES

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

THE WOMAN ON THE MOUNTAIN

FRONT COVER FLAP

BACK COVER FLAP

BACK COVER MATERIAL

For my father, Frank Munro, who always listened.

WELCOME TO MY MOUNTAIN


Short or tall or really small,
Furred or feathered, smooth or scaly—
I’m the poorest creature here, without a tail at all.

Being the only human resident of a wildlife refuge, on the edge of a national park that is far from any town, I see lots of creatures behaving ‘wildly’. They can be so natural because they ignore me, as they should.

After all, I’m obviously of an inferior and inadequate species: no tail, only two legs, pathetic hearing, poor vision that’s shockingly so at night, no built-in insulation of fur or feathers, and an apparent inability to survive on the local abundance of grass, leaves and roots—or other creatures.

To that general picture of modern white Australians, my neighbours might add other deficiencies peculiar to me: knees that can’t be relied on to bend, as knees must, to climb up and down slopes; inappropriate Celtic skin that burns to cancerous spots under our sunshine; and a lack of any singing talent.

I love where I live, high on my forested mountain, surrounded by even higher, wilder mountains, but I admit to being the least well-adapted to my surroundings, because still dependent to some extent on the outside world.

But not for entertainment! My fellow wild residents, and their relatives from the national park next door, are always up to new tricks. These may well frustrate my own activities and infuriate me with the apparent perversity of their choice and timing, but they never fail to interest, surprise and cause me to seek further information.

Such tales usually amuse other people—and me, once I’ve calmed down. I mean how would you like it if your neighbours ate your roses, solicited for sex in your front yard, or commandeered your shed?

Many people say they like animals, but they really only mean domesticated animals, or the cute and cuddly semi-tame native ones kept in tourist parks. Being genuinely wild creatures, none of my neighbours is cuddly; they wouldn’t allow such liberties even if I wanted to. But many are very cute, like the joeys—the baby wallabies and kangaroos and wallaroos.

Beauty is another matter. While I acknowledge snakes can be beautiful, there is always a big ‘BUT’ clouding my attempts at objective judgement. They do provide a few scary tales, because I’m alone, and not the calmest where creatures like snakes or spiders or leeches are concerned. Other people may even laugh at these tales, but it’s a nervous, skittery kind of laughter, usually accompanied by a shiver and a ‘Rather you than me!’

If ‘cute’ and ‘beautiful’ and even ‘scary’ sometimes apply, ‘amazing’ often does.

I am astonished at the diversity of ways in which these creatures have adapted to their environment, evolved over thousands of years, and are still evolving. They have truly earned their places here; they belong.

When I studied biology in high school and learnt about the internal processes of the human body, I was struck with wonder at the intricate design of it all. My wonder was no less when we looked into the pinned-back frog or rat we had dissected—that is, a less squeamish classmate had—and it was enhanced by the fact that their insides looked just like the diagrams in our textbooks!

But we didn’t even consider our native animals then, let alone their unique and clever features: how a kangaroo can delay the growth of a foetus; how a koala can survive on a diet of gum leaves that would be toxic to other animals; how a wombat’s pouch opens backwards so the baby doesn’t get buried in dirt when the mother digs; how an echidna has one extra-long claw for scratching amongst its spines ... the list of things to wonder at is endless.

In any association with living creatures, there will also be sad or painful tales. Many readers of my first book, The Woman on the Mountain, say they found the animal stories some of the most moving. Over the 30 years since I found this place, and came to belong to it, many incidents were experienced and creatures met that didn’t find their way into that book. And of course our wild life together has continued since.

So that new readers will be able to follow me and my animal encounters over those decades, here’s a potted history. I first moved here in 1978 with my husband and our two children, Sam, five, and Lucy, three. That early bush life—living in a tent while we built a little mud-brick cabin, fencing, setting up watering systems, planting fruit trees and vegetable gardens—was idyllic, but the marriage splintered into very nasty shards after too few years. Then came too many years in Sydney as a sole parent, working and renting and always broke, returning to our Mountain home whenever we could.

In 1994, when the kids were off living their own lives, I resumed my full-time bush lifestyle, with my new partner, having installed solar power so we could work from here. The cabin grew a little bigger; its surrounding yard was fenced off from the forest, and from its inhabitants—theoretically.

Since I ended that relationship in early 2003, I have lived here alone—except of course for the animals. These solitary six years have allowed me to observe and share more of their lives than ever before, but surviving here wasn’t, isn’t, always easy for me, as The Woman on the Mountain tells!

As a child I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be an artist or an author or a ballerina when I grew up. Whilst I might still risk an occasional pirouette across the paddock or a grand jeté over a puddle when the wallabies aren’t watching, the ballerina dream ended early. But I do like to draw my neighbours as well as write about them, so to indulge two of my dreams, I offer my readers, old and new, this illustrated collection of ‘Mountain tails’. Mostly short, a few tall, mostly new, a few classics—to make you smile, chuckle or sniffle, say ‘Oo-oh!’, ‘Aha!’ or, better still, ‘A-a-ah!’

Come take a walk in my gumboots and meet my neighbours.

Sharyn Munro
The Mountain, 2009
www.sharynmunro.com

A QUOLL IN THE KITCHEN


A Spotted-tailed Quoll has bred in my big shed for most of the last ten years. She mates and gives birth in the cooler months, which means that by mid-spring the shed is almost unusable, so pungent is the stench of her carnivore’s combined nursery, larder and toilet.

By summer she and the kids are a very strong presence. I enter only under dire necessity, holding my nose and calling out my credentials and apologies as I go. I should be less sensitive, having plenty of past experience of what a teenage boy’s long-worn socks and sneakers, finally removed, can do to a room.

Since she’s a threatened species, classed as ‘Vulnerable’, I don’t mind, even if I do whinge sometimes, as I feel privileged to be able to offer her shelter.

Usually she’s seen outside the shed only at night, quite often on my verandah, but very occasionally I see her at dawn or twilight, hurrying across the paddock, looking purposeful. She makes me think of the time-pressed White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

However, while they do have daily routines, my wild neighbours like to keep me on my toes with occasional flashes of unpredictable behaviour.

One fine autumn day, I was sitting at my desk. On my right the door to the verandah was held wide open with one of the heavy black flat irons which, pre-solar power, I had to heat on the fuel stove for ironing. Low sunlight was streaming across the floorboards, throwing into relief the curving sweeps of the original rough saw cuts, bare-feet-polished smooth over the years. Secondhand, like my windows and doors, which, when we acquired them 30 years ago, were already old and weathered—although back then I wasn’t!

I should explain that my mud-brick cabin is tiny. Its one main room houses my study, living, dining and kitchen areas, so continuous that it’s hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Perfect for one person, and occasionally two, and causing little housework. So my one external door doesn’t open into a specific room and I can see into all the main ‘rooms’. Two small sleeping areas and a pantry, tacked onto the back of the original cabin at a later date, and an extended verandah at the front, and that’s it. My home. Don’t ask about a bathroom—it sets me off—and this tale’s not about my goosebumps of a windy winter morning as I brave the outside shower.

The phone rang and I quickly turned from contemplating the floorboards to answer it, as it was almost time for the radio interview arranged with Charles Wooley about my book, The Woman on the Mountain. He’s in Tasmania, but his radio show goes out to 50 regional stations across Australia.

Clearly a discerning and intelligent man—since he loved the book!—he proved to be warm, funny and empathetic as well. He especially loved the stories about the quoll, perhaps because she’s related to the Tasmanian Devil. When I put the phone down I was still chuckling at his offer to play the quoll in the unlikely event of a TV show of the book.

I made myself a coffee (the non-instant, volcanic way: strong, flat white, one sugar, in case you’re curious), taking it back to the desk, where I re-booted my Mac and soon lost myself in the current short-story-in-progress.

Not two hours later, I was still staring at the screen, pondering on the best word to replace a repetition I’d just spotted, when the corner of my right eye detected a movement. I turned my head, and there she was, as boldly reddish-brown and spotty as you please, walking into my kitchen in the middle of the day!

I uttered a small squeal—not the clichéd mouse-sighting kind, just a shocked involuntary ‘What the...!’ She looked at me, about-turned, and unhurriedly waddled back to the doorway, her long spotted tail held straight out behind. I got up from the desk and followed her, grabbing my camera as I went.

She hadn’t gone far. From the doorway I watched as she jumped into my ‘burnables’ bin, only half a metre away at most, on the verandah. It’s an open plastic cube, a cut-down 10-litre vinegar container, and she’s about the size of a large cat. It wasn’t exactly a tight fit but neither did it look comfortable, bent double as she was, tail hanging over the edge. It occurred to me that she wouldn’t have put herself in such a vulnerable position if she had considered me any sort of threat.

She fossicked noisily around in the paper and cardboard, then leapt back out on to the verandah with a piece of scrunched-up printer paper. I’d been having trouble with this story for a few days.

I could have told her that version was no good, but it must have smelt of the buttered slice of pumpkin and walnut loaf that had sat on my desk papers at yesterday’s morning tea. Butter’s almost animal, for a desperate quoll in a vegetarian garbage bin; she should be thankful that I’m not a vegan—yet. Holding the crumpled sheet in her paw, she gave it a thorough licking before abandoning it.

Then she walked at a leisurely pace to the steps, continuing to ignore me, and slipped through the side railings. I followed. On the stone path right next to the steps is a large green cement dish, about 45 millimetres in diameter, its pedestal long broken, so it’s a grounded bird bath, still vaguely intended for birds to drink from. It now held brackish rainwater, over soggy leaves fallen from the ornamental grapevine above, which it also trapped in reflection.

As she drank from it, I stood on the adjacent steps and clicked several pictures of her. She didn’t blink or deign to look around until she’d drunk her fill. One brief blank stare over her shoulder at me—‘Haven’t you got anything better to do with your time?’—and she ambled off to her halfway house, a tin-covered pile of timber, plopping down beside it for a sun soak before entering.

No thought of flight. Or fight, thank goodness, since another common name for this sort of quoll is the Tiger Quoll. Not because she looks like one—she’s spotted, not striped—but because she’s a fierce and aggressive carnivore with an extremely strong jaw, able to bring down, and more importantly, hold down, a hefty possum or even an animal much larger than herself, like a wallaby.

The Spotted-tailed Quoll is the biggest carnivorous marsupial left on mainland Australia. The Tassie Devil is the biggest overall, but they’re in real trouble, with those new and contagious facial tumours that have almost halved their population since 1995. Let’s hope a way to stop it is found before the Devil joins the Tasmanian Tiger, the Thylacine, to become mere legend.

My quoll’s cousin, the Eastern Quoll, who’s smaller and doesn’t have spots on her tail, appears to be gone from the mainland now, surviving only in Tasmania. I wish I’d had a shed to offer as refuge when I saw one here, as I’m sure I did, in the ’70s.

As happens so often with my wild neighbours, once again my quoll’s behaviour had let me know quite plainly that I don’t count. I’m not prey—although I’m always glad she’s much smaller than I am; I’m not predator—she knows I’m a wussy vegetarian pacifist; and I’m certainly not a potential male partner or a competing female.

I’ve told her I think male quolls are too boofy-looking for my tastes, with their blunter faces and big raw pink noses that make me envisage them snuffling about in bloody carcasses. But I don’t think she has much choice when it comes to mating, which is the only time I have ever heard quolls make vocal sounds.

Once a year, when she has a male visitor in the shed, there’s a prolonged and fierce carry-on, with growls and hisses that don’t sound very loving. I’ve read that the females often get badly bitten during the process, which can last up to eight hours. I bet she’s pleased he doesn’t stay around or ask to move in: male quolls are clearly only bearable as one-night stands.

I’d said to Charles W. that my quoll had been pushing the boundaries of her/my territory, taking over my verandah as well as the shed. She ensures I know it by leaving her curled and fur-filled droppings there for me to avoid each morning. Now it looks like she has designs on the interior of the cabin as well.

Checking out my larder? She’d be disappointed in its totally fleshless contents, but if she worked out how to open the little 24-volt refrigerator, the size used in caravans, and easily within her height’s reach, she’d find cheese, and I know she eats that.

Anything smelly is her preference, but I always at least stock a wedge of Parmesan or Romano, a large tub of fetta and a block of the driest matured cheddar I can find amongst the non-fancy cheap range, so I’m sure they’d do. She’d like it when my Tasmanian friend and webmaster, Fred, sends me a double treat: a postbox of books, the space around them packed with wonderful Tassie cheeses like washed rind and aged blue, all loudly announcing their ripeness by the time they arrive. The post office probably wonders why anyone would send me dirty socks.

I no longer put the wrappers of such treats in the garbage, but lay them face up on the verandah for her. I hope that will keep her happy, or entice her back, as this summer she seems to have been off on holiday. Quolls are strong and clever; deservedly top of the food chain here, apart from introduced species like dogs and humans. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she could master a fridge door.

I obviously need to think about how to mark my territory better.

And thank you, yes, I’ve had that suggestion and I don’t fancy it. Primitive though adequate my sanitary arrangements may be, with a ‘long drop’ pit toilet, but I draw the line at that.

SNEAKY SKINK


The quoll’s not the only intruder over the outdoor/indoor border by any means. One very sleek and speedy lizard is a frequent visitor to my verandah. At about 180 millimetres long, much bigger than the common Garden Skink, he’s probably a Southern Water Skink, but could be an Eastern one. Regardless of his exact title, I know he’s an Inquisitive Skink.

Often when I’m at the computer I catch sight of him snooping round the corner of the open door, then scurrying in and off across the floor, usually disappearing behind my wood box next to the fuel stove. This is neither square nor timber as the word ‘box’ implies but I don’t know what else to call it. It’s actually the copper liner of an old wood-fired clothes-washing boiler, which is probably why people used to call them ‘coppers’ in their entirety.

When I was growing up that was all my mother had. Coppers can be freestanding cast-iron units, as I had up here in the early days, but my mother’s copper liner sat in a built-in brick and cement corner structure, with a chimney above and a fireplace beneath. Mum had to fill it by bucket.

I can still feel the furry softness of the waterlogged wooden dowel stick with which we’d lift steaming sheets or towels or clothes from the boiling water and drop them into the cold rinsing water in the adjacent cement laundry tub. They were always surprisingly heavy, and there was a delicate balance to the angle at which you held the stick. Too low and you’d drop the clothes back in, splashing yourself with boiling water; too high and that water would run back down the stick and scald your hand.

A household wash today would contain lots of synthetic fabrics that wouldn’t survive such serious boiling. They’d probably pine for fabric softener or pre-wash stain remover or whatever other perceived essentials line the shelves of those incredibly full supermarket aisles for cleaning and washing. Our laundry items were washed in suds made by shaving bars of Sunlight yellow laundry soap, and placing these in a little wire mesh cage with a handle.

That’s how we washed dishes too, and not in a sink, but in a big tin dish on the kitchen table, with a tin tray beside it for stacking and draining. The water for this procedure was either boiled in a kettle on the fuel stove, or in a creamy-yellow thick china electric jug with a Bakelite lid: very modern, we thought.

After the rinsing, whites like school shirts might be treated to the Bluo nob in its little cloth bag, or the crumbly, silky white Reckitt’s Starch mixed with water to the right gluey density. But what on earth was Bluo made from? For we were also given the dampened Bluo to rub on bee, wasp or ant stings, which we did, violently, and it worked, but whether from the colour, the pressure or just the distraction I don’t know.

Anyway, if they were the good old days, they’re not missed by me, as I simply load and program my sophisticated electric computerised automatic washing machine, thanks to my solar power system.

Today people like to use these old copper liners for wood storage because if there are any termites in the firewood, they can’t eat through copper and start on your floorboards.

Occasionally I worry about my sneaky skink being trapped inside the cabin when I close the door at night, but I suspect he’s also a clever skink and knows when to make his exit. I just don’t see him do it.

Neither do I see him eat the flies that get caught inside, and I assume he must. We get big flies here rather than sticky little bush flies. I’m no fly expert, so I assume they’re blowflies, but they don’t bother me. They seem only interested in animal products, so ignore my vegetarian platters at meal times. And I have noticed that the only time these flies hang about the toilet building is after I have non-vegetarian visitors, which include most of my family and friends.

I don’t like screens, and in warm weather I keep the door and the windows open for the flies to go in and out, which they do, but there is one large fixed window that is the bane of my summers. Because I can’t open it, flies buzz and buzz hopelessly at the glass, until they fall down in a daze, which is when I imagine my skink comes darting out to claim them as lunch. Replacing that window with two opening casements is high on one of my lists: the never-done-that-before-possibly-too-hard one.

In the Sydney years, we could only come back here on some weekends and holidays. Seeing as we were only part-time, a Cunningham’s Skink took up permanent residence in the cabin. He wasn’t sleek at all, but fat and spiky and bumpy like a small dinosaur. As I wrote in my diary one weekend then:

Our resident lizard rustles out from under the kero fridge to investigate, and remains fixed, pretending not to notice me, till he gets up the courage to waddle (he plainly thinks he’s darting) across the room to safety under the sideboard. As the winter sets in, we won’t see him at all—I wonder where he goes to hibernate? We used to find whole families of these fat hibernating lizards curled up together under a sheet of tin or amongst stored beer bottles—they remained in rigid crescents when we picked them up to relocate them. Ours doesn’t seem to have a family—he has been alone in our cabin for years. I hope he knows there is a world outside it.

He eventually must have been scared by bush rats into hiding on top of the mirror above my big sideboard.

When I became a full-time resident again, my partner and I decided to paint the mud walls, with environmentally friendly paint of course, to reflect more light. To do so we had to move the sideboard.

We heard a loud clunk as something fell and landed on the floorboards: there lay one perfectly preserved, desiccated Cunningham’s Skink, undamaged by the fall, and looking like a plaster replica of himself. I was more upset than I’d have expected to be; the poor little blighter must have starved up there because he wasn’t game to come down.

So my concerns about my snooping skink are not unfounded, but because I am living here now he’d never be locked in for long—and besides, I refuse to let the bush rats move in again! But that’s another story.