“This year I do not want the dark to leave me. I need its wrap of silent stillness, its cloak of long-lasting embrace. Let the dawns come late, let the sunsets arrive early, let the evenings extend themselves while I lean into the abyss of my being,” Joyce Rupp, Winter’s Cloak
IN summer, we learn to live again. In winter, we learn about ourselves. And the presence of a wild snake on one’s back deck is, arguably, one of life’s great teachers. I used to be scared of snakes, having grown up in country Queensland where scorching summers were punctuated by frequent snake sightings. Red Belly Blacks and King Browns were the order of the day out there, the type of rebellious reptiles that could easily kill a small child. And so I learned to fear those slithering serpents of my youth. But several years ago, when I first spotted a carpet snake on my back deck, I decided to finally face my fear. On the one hand, this was made much easier by the fact it’s a harmless common Eastern Australian carpet python. On the other hand, a snake is still a snake.
Anastasia arrived first, who departed only to be replaced by Sylvia, who grew from a one-metre juvenile in the first year, into a three-metre monster by her third. Too fat to fit back into the ceiling cavity, she departed, only to be replaced by Saskia, who arrived about a year ago. Saskia, like Sylvia, was also slim, but with a ready diet of bush rats and possums right out the back, she too has grown. And now she’s possibly the fattest snake I’ve ever seen. My anaconda girl also measures about three metres long, but sports the beer belly of a Brisbane bogan. Lay off the possums, I want to advise, particularly given I gain great comfort from their roaring thunder along my timber roof late at night. To me, that’s the soundtrack to living in Brisbane, and I love it.
So, what have I learned from my snake this winter? The first lesson is that it’s important to slow down. While my snake is still surprisingly active, even in winter, she moves at a slower pace. She basks on the back deck in the winter sunshine, that I, too crave. Learn to love the softer light, she seems to whisper to me. Take the time to laze. Stretch. Sleep. We need these seasons to rejuvenate. Reflect. Retreat inwards. For in a place like Brisbane, where the summers are long and lusty, it’s too easy to keep running. And run out of steam.
My sassy Saskia has also taught me while it’s important to eat, don’t eat too much. Fuelled by her latest possum catch, and a ridiculously distended belly, she tried and failed many times to return to her ceiling cavity the other afternoon as the sun signalled its early afternoon departure. She crawled and wiggled and pretty much looked like I do every winter when it comes to trying on that first pair of jeans. Eventually, she gave up. And whether she will return is anyone’s guess. I’ve learned to grow OK with that too.
She’s taught me to shed my skin a little. Be vulnerable. And she’s taught me to face my fears. In an ideal world, there would be no wild snakes on my back deck. But history has taught me that not long after one has departed, another one arrives. They are territorial like that. And so, I must embrace this paradigm. Just as winter follows autumn, the seasons will keep on changing. I used to hate winter too. The short days, the cold mornings, being constrained by too many clothes. By nature I’m a summer frock girl who loves being in the water. Those beautiful balmy evenings, bare feet and ice-cold beer. But I’m slowly learning that life is also about embracing the shadow side. Not only in nature, but in myself and others. Instead of rejecting the things I dislike about myself, learning to acknowledge them as a part of a greater sum.
I’m back on the yoga mat this winter, a nourishing alternative when the water is too cold in which to swim, and last week we celebrated the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. The days are starting to grow longer and pretty soon, they will grow warmer again. But for now, I’m going to relish the words of Joyce Rupp: “Let me lie in the cave of my soul, for too much light blinds me, steals the source of revelation. Let me seek solace in the empty places of winter’s passage, those vast dark nights that never fail to shelter me.” Wherever you are in the world, whatever the season of your soul, I hope you find solace too.
DEEP in the heart of Lamington National Park and I’ve lost my way, and potentially my marbles. I’m meant to be doing a bush walk called the Box Forest Circuit but when I start my meanderings I discover only two signs: a circuit which mentions Canungra Creek along which Box Forest also traces, or a 22km walk to Binna Burra. Foolishly, I select the first and it’s only two hours, a scarily steep climb, rolling over and under fallen tree branches Lara Croft style, and a red belly black snake later that I realise I have potentially taken the wrong track. Remarkably, I have mobile phone coverage at the foot of the forest (I can’t get it in the Brisbane CBD some days) and manage to phone my accommodation reception who assures me yes, I am lost, and yes, I need to retrace my steps.
At this point I begin to cry…until I realise I have only limited water and I cannot afford the dehydration a salty tantrum would unleash. I immediately stop crying, tell myself to pull it together, and start the hot hike back up the hill. If there’s anything a travel writer hates more in this life than getting lost it’s having to retrace their steps. And then there’s that red belly black snake to consider on the way back. The heat is getting to me and weird thoughts swirl through my mind as I climb the hill. If I’m bitten by a snake (I figure if I can see one, there’s probably another 10 I can’t see), what would I use as a bandage? I briefly consider my hair band as a tourniquet before I promptly remember that speeds up the poison. The best I can think of is my t-shirt, figuring at least I’m wearing a bra and what a great survival story I will have to tell. (And potential lingerie contract).
My second thought is to phone a bloke with whom I went on a fantastic date two months ago, a bloke who liked to bush walk. A bloke who told me how wonderful I was…and who promptly disappeared. I don’t want to ask him about snake bites, I want to ask him why he disappeared. It’s at this point in my thinking I realise I am really dehydrated and I need to leave this forest pronto. I finally exit the forest, and am about to go on my second activity for the day – a Segway tour – when I am overcome with the urge to faint and vomit. As I am neither a fainter of vomiter in normal life, it occurs to me I have heat stroke and I end up spending the next hour in my room, watching the room spin like a DJ turntable.
I spent last week on the Gold Coast hunting and gathering a series of stories and, as usual, the stories also found me. Work aside, it’s a week of memories, old ghosts and new smiles. Like so many Queenslanders, my childhood holidays were spent on the southern Gold Coast, where I am gathering the majority of my stories and it’s like a million messages in a bottle float onto those sunny shores each day. Around Kirra bend I drive and my mind instantly flashes back to 35 years ago when we’d sit on Greenmount Beach with mum, and watch out for dad driving our gold Kingswood round that bend on a Friday afternoon after work. The beach has changed so much over the decades, but “mum’s rock” against which she used to rest her tanned back is still there. So much shifting sand, so many memories. I walk down the main street of Coolangatta and the old pie shop where we’d feast on cream buns still remains, as does that same scent from the 70s. I don’t even need to taste a cream bun for those sticky sweet memories to come flooding back.
I wake at 4.30am for sunrise at Snapper Rocks where we used to frolic in the rock pools as kids. We loved those rock pools on hot summer days and the danger of the sea spray bursting over the sea wall. On summer nights, when we were tucked up in bunk beds, dad would venture down to stand on those dangerous walls to fish. The tides have taken their toll of the landscape there too, but the green frog rock remains overlooking the beach where one of my sisters got married. I keep shaking my head as if it’s full of salt water. Where did the decades go?
I drive up to Point Danger and my mind fast forwards to 25 years ago when I started my newspaper cadetship at the Gold Coast Bulletin. In that first year, my first out of home, I lived high on the hill at Point Danger in my family’s crumbling old beach house. The house is long gone, demolished and sold by a famous surfer to a developer for a pretty penny. I stare at the block of land and try to capture the memories. At the foot of the hill I pause where the caravan park once stood. It’s now an empty park but I can see nana and pop and my uncles and cousins at Christmas. In my mind, I am sitting in the hot annex and opening presents. I drive down a laneway in Rainbow Bay and remember the year our budgie escaped from the cage, out the window of the old flat in which we used to stay, only to land and be captured on the same bitumen my car is paused on now. It all seems so incongruous.
I stay in a 1950s Bilinga beach motel which has been remodelled and yet those old fibro memories remain. Despite my best efforts, there’s still sand in my sheets every night. On my last afternoon, work done for the week, I’m like that same kid that was let out of their country Queensland classroom for the summer 35 years ago. So I grab one of the hotel’s retro bicycles, slip on my togs, and pedal like mad along the oceanfront until I reach Kirra bend. I race into the ocean and frolic for an hour, bathing in those memories of being lost and found. Salt water in my hair, sea breeze on my face, I jump back on my retro bike and pedal back towards the future.
The Global Goddess was a guest of Gold Coast Tourism – http://www.visitgoldcoast.com
QUELLE horreur! The first shock of my day comes when I realise I am on a flight to Cairns, not Cannes, as I had originally hoped. But I am quick to recover from this minor detail, Tropical North Queensland being, after all, one of my favourite destinations on the planet with frankly far better beaches than in France.
It does, however, take me the entire 2.5 hour flight from Brisbane to come to grips with the fact that somewhere along the line, someone at Qantas appears to have made the incredulous decision to cancel its inflight love-song dedication channel “From the Heart”. Now many people wouldn’t understand but over the years it has formed the highlight of my Qantas flights, the channel to which sad singles like me have long aspired to hear our names.
Oh yes, I’ve spent the best part of the past decade bouncing around this big brown land with the flying kangaroo hearing Peter dedicate something schmoopy to Pam, all the while fantasising that one day that girl would be me. I do note, however, that Qantas does now offer in-seat messaging and I surreptitiously turn mine on to see if anyone is interested in communicating with the girl in 11C. They aren’t. To entertain myself, I spend the rest of the flight staring at the inner thigh of the 30-something man in shorts sitting two seats over.
I’m in Cairns for business, but it never feels like work when you’re in the tropics, what with World Heritage Listed Rainforest to my left and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to my right (which frankly beats the usual clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right), as I drive north. I’ve hired a car for my brief visit and even the bloke at Europcar is so jovial when I tell him my plans that he suggests we both keep driving and head across the Nullabor, on some kind of bizarre Thelma and Louise meets Wolf Creek scenario. I reject his invitation, as lovely as that sounds, and drive along the Coral Sea, quite happily alone.
I am headed for Thala Beach Nature Reserve 15 minutes south of Port Douglas, but first I stop in Port for a pie. It’s not any pie I’m after, but a crocodile pie from Mocka’s Pies. Yes, plonk me in cane and croc country and all of a sudden I turn into Bear Grylls picturing myself all woman versus wild as I hand over my $5.80, and imagine tackling this beasty boy with my bare hands. I ask the woman with a soupy Greek accent behind the counter where the croc has come from and become excited when I think she says “the bush”. “The bush!” I squeal back. “No, the butcher,” she replies, deadpan. But it takes more than that to deflate me and fully sated I head on to Thala. Me: 1; Croc: 0.
Now, at this point, I should mention it has occurred to me that the very next day I am going to be sea kayaking in croc territory, and I wonder how long it takes for a croc pie to pass through one’s system and for no trace, no scent of this sucker to remain. I can just imagine a float of angry crocodiles splashing around my sea kayak, stalking me to the death. But when I arrive at Thala I discover my tour has been cancelled due to high winds. Me: 2; Croc 0.
I soon discover there’s plenty of other wildlife at this eco-tourism establishment to admire as I embark on a nature tour with the head gardener. One of the highlights of a nature tour is you learn about all of God’s creatures on the property. One of the lowlights is that you now know too much and I soon replace my ridiculous fear of crocs with an ill-founded worry about other things that go bump in the night. Me: 2; Other Critters: 1; Croc: 0.
But I have nothing to worry about, not even the giant carpet python I hear of lurking five doors down outside Cabin 42. For I am in the tropics, and while there is plenty of wildlife, there’s not much that is going to kill you and I’ve got more chance of dying of boredom back in Brisbane on a bad day than anything here. Me: 3; Other Critters: 1; Croc: 0.
In fact, the nature tour turns out to be the highlight of my stay, and I spend almost three hours with Head Gardener Brett Kelly as he takes me around this 58ha property pointing out spiders, butterflies, birds and plants. We end the tour at Oak Beach where Brett combines an element of one of the many other tours, the Coconut Odyssey, and husks a coconut for me to drink. Now, it’s not often a man husks a coconut just a basic spike and his bare hands and I find myself off in fantasy land again, this time picturing the man of my dreams, clad only in loin cloth, presenting me with a husked coconut. If there’s anything to get a city woman’s loins racing it’s the thought of a fella going all primal. I think Brett senses something is amiss and we end the tour shortly after the coconut husking. Me: 4; Other Critters: 1; Manly Men: 1; Croc: 0.
I head back down to the beach and sit at Herbie’s Shack, where I have ordered a picnic basket ploughman’s lunch and ice-cold beer. Fully sated, I crawl into a hammock slung between two coconut trees and listen to the waves. I can’t see him, but I just know there’s a croc out there somewhere. Waiting and watching. Me: 5: Other Critters: 1; Manly Men: 1; Croc: 1.
The Global Goddess stayed as a guest of Thala Beach Nature Reserve. To book your own stay, go to http://www.thalabeach.com.au
DEPENDING on how you view life, it is either a massive coincidence, or pure fate, that Julia Baker now lives in a street called Olympus, in Brisbane. For it has taken this 45-year-old a Herculean effort to get to this point. And if you wish to stretch the Greek mythology a little further, if you’d never met Julia before this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking she may look a little like Medusa, not because this softie would turn you to stone, but because of her love of snakes. In the Snakes and Ladders game of life, of one slither forward and two back, Julia is emerging triumphantly, as Brisbane’s very own Snake Sheila.
But it’s been quite the journey. Born in Australia to a German father and English mother, Julia spent her formative years in Europe, vacillating between England and Germany where at the age of 10 she moved with her family, learned the language and went to school until she dropped out at 16 to do a baker’s apprenticeship.
“I wanted to become an actress, but it wasn’t really a job back then,” Julia says, not knowing that one day, that dream would come true as well.
“The baking apprenticeship was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life, lifting 50kg of flour and 2am starts.
“I still can’t believe I’d get up in the freezing cold and blizzards, but my dad never let me give up and I also completed a confectionary apprenticeship.”
But Julia’s birthplace beckoned and lured her towards an incredible life journey that would be peppered with both the bleak and beautiful.
“Everyone is besotted with Australia overseas, it is this mysterious country that has no neighbours. I used to dream about Australia all the time and wonder what it would be like if I lived there,” she says.
“I came over here with $2000 in my pocket but because I had such good qualifications I walked into the Hilton Sydney and got a job in a day.” Julia climbed her way up through the chef ranks, working for a number of big name hotel chains. She met husband and gave birth to two girls, before moving to Brisbane 15 years ago. And in the Snakes and Ladders game of life, her marriage broke down, sending her into a downward spiral of depression.
“I’d never really thought about what I wanted. You get married at a young age and you are never really allowed to dream. You do everything everyone else wants you to do,” she says.
“But you reach an age where you think ‘I’ve done everything everyone wanted me to do and it’s still a disaster’. I could see this pattern of pleasing everyone. I was attracting the wrong kind of people into my life. I looked at my two girls and didn’t think I was a good role model.
“When I split up from my husband I went through six months of depression. I thought I was a loser.” But Julia stumbled across a couple of self-help books and, while not academically minded, something resonated. And she began to dream.
About 10 years ago, dreaming and visualising her future, she went to Australia Zoo, saw a massive boa constrictor, and “fell in love with snakes”.
“I was watching all the people in the queue and they were carrying on like the snake was some kind of monster,” Julia says.
“I kinda felt that it was like me and they couldn’t see that underneath it had a really good heart. When they put it around my neck I almost cried.
“I thought ‘sod you, I’ll show you’. It just set me off and every time I’d go and see snakes I’d be drooling and I decided to get a pet snake.”
Julia now has not one but three pet snakes, two pet blue-tongued lizards and a frilly dragon. And then she met someone with a snake catching licence and decided to follow her passion, undertaking a snake-catching course and getting her own licence.
“I started to get call outs and before I knew it, I became the preferred catcher for the Brisbane City Council,” she says.
“I don’t claim to be the best. I have a massive passion for them and what makes me different is I really enjoy people and recognise that they have a fear. I understand them and I try to educate them.
“In the past five years I’ve had a real taste for feeling alive. (Julia also rides motor bikes, acts in plays, performs puppet shows and is a motivational speaker).”
Then, three years ago, with her life almost perfect, she sat down and wrote a list of her ideal man. Two weeks later, a Scotsman called John walked into her life.
“John is just perfect. He embraces me for being chaotic and worships every little bit about me,” she says.
“I can be me and I don’t have to apologise. On our second date I said to myself ‘he needs to be alright with snakes’ and I flung a snake around his neck while I went to answer a phone call.”
John is not only alright with snakes, he now also has his snake catcher licence.
Julia’s next big dream is to become an international speaker, and her Snakes and Ladders game continues on its upward trajectory. Brisbane-based documentary makers FlickChicks have just signed with a major international broadcaster for a 10-part series on the Snake Sheila, with filming slated to begin this August, just in time for snake season Down Under.
“My big vision is the TV show and the underlying message you can be in your 40s and get some passions in your life,” she says.
“I will not fit into what society wants me to do again.”
For more information on any element of Julia’s work, please contact her on 0400 140 800. To find out more about the Snake Sheila series, visit FlickChicks at http://www.flickchicks.com.au
AN organised man, my best mate is not. Loyal, kind, and the sort of caring bloke who will take your call at 3am if you are broke, or worse, broken – absolutely – but he was obviously buried under a pile of dirty laundry when the organised gene was handed out. And so I find myself, at the end of our weekend camping trip, straddling the side of a busy highway, semi-trailers brushing past me on one side, snakes in the grass on the other, thonged feet and desperate eyes searching frantically for the tyre to our campervan that has mysteriously flung off as we drove. How did this happen? My mate forgot to tighten the wheel nuts when he changed the spare.
We’ve known each other 30 years, my mate and me, so none of this should have come as a surprise, least of all to me. But each time it somehow does. The ante upped on what could possibly go wrong. Our trip out to Queensland’s pretty Girraween National Park starts late. We’re meant to leave at 6.30pm for the four-hour journey south-west but that is pushed back as my mate is getting his car serviced. The same uninsured car we discover he’s been driving without brakes. He can’t find the camp stove which is meant to be where all the other camping gear has been plonked. Under his house, home to piles of unwashed laundry and a plethora of treasures owned by a variety of people, both living and dead, who may or may not also be buried beneath the rubble.
We eventually hit the road and arrive at the National Park close to midnight. We’re meant to be meeting our mates in their Kombi as they know in which of the two campsites we’re booked. My mate hands me a cigarette lighter in the dark. “What’s this for?” I ask. “I forgot the torch,” he says, as I stare incredulously at the stick which is meant to illuminate the night to allow us to make camp. Just as we pitch the campervan for the night in the middle of the Aussie bush, the Kombi arrives, having come off second best to a kangaroo, with all of its right hand side panels dented. I climb into bed for a restless sleep about angry kangas, and a nagging fear an equally annoyed park ranger is going to shine his torch into our illegal impromptu campsite in the death of night.
Things are looking brighter the next morning and we decide to move to a proper campsite where we don’t have to wee in the bush in the dead of night in the middle of snake breeding season. My mate decides he’s not going to put the pop top down on the campervan, instead driving the short distance to our new site with protruding beds still made. Things are going well, until my mate turns a tight corner and the van crunches into the back of his expensive black jeep, denting not only two corners of the four-wheel-drive but putting the pop top out of alignment. All of a sudden, our cheap camping weekend is looking expensive.
But troopers that we are, we set up camp, drive into the nearest town to pick up eggs (my mate forgot the eggs), and the four of us regroup over a few beers on one of those all-Aussie bush hotel verandas. We spend the next day walking the tracks for which this particular park is known. It’s three hours of solid bushwalking and food for the soul among the blooming spring wild flowers. It’s my job that evening to cook dinner – Beef and Guinness stew in a camp oven – while the others take a second hike. I’ve never cooked in a camp oven before and I’m nervous. What if the hungry hikers return and I’ve burned the beef? There’s not exactly a pizza place out here in the bush.
It’s a stunning afternoon as I stoke the fire, sip on a beer, and the others set off on their walk. And then the weather changes, rapidly, dramatically. Angry thunder starts grumbling in the distance and I have just enough time to put my beer (first rule of camping: save the beer) under some shelter before the sky erupts. I jump around like a mad marsupial, simultaneously racing to zip up the campervan, close the Kombi, the car windows, save the fire wood from a soaking and most of all, salvaging dinner. The storm is raging all around me, my friends are somewhere in the blackening bush, but there’s no way the stew on which I’ve spent the past 3 hours is going to spoil. I stand in the cold, wet, dark, hair plastered to my face, stoking my fire and stirring my stew like a wild witch.
The storm blows over as quickly as it arrived and my friends are swept back into camp. The camp table is set for dinner, red wine is poured and my stew is sumptuous, all tender and smoky and made with a kind of frenzied love. We wake up the next day, our cars and bodies a bit bruised and battered, feet and faces dusty and ready to hit the road. It’s only when I’m standing on the side of the highway with my mate several hours later, looking for our missing tyre, that his words of earlier that weekend hit me: “This doesn’t happen sitting around at home, you know.” We never do find the tyre and instead, limp into the tiny town of Aratula on the original shredded spare, and abandon the van there, until we can return the next day with new tyres. We stop further down the road and crack open a warm beer from the back of the car and laugh outrageously. And that’s the crux of this story. In life, sometimes you come off second best to a proverbial roo or two, you get dinged and dusty, wet, hungry and tired. Things don’t go to plan. But, like a kangaroo, it’s how you bounce that matters most.
I ARRIVED late, in the midst of a ferocious tropical storm. I was the only person on the bus which was carrying me deeper into the jungle. My friendly Malaysian driver dropped me off in the dark, the torrential rain soaking me to the skin, with the warning: “watch out for snakes, as they are always watching you.” Great, I thought, he could have said “men” instead of “snakes” but it was not to be on this particular evening.
I took my first tentative steps towards the dim light somewhere in the distance…and promptly broke my sandals. Now I was drenched, barefoot, and in the midst of a potential snake pit in a tropical thunderstorm in the dark and rather alone.
Sliding on the slippery path, I eventually made my way to the light which turned out to be a cafe where I grabbed a beer, and sat out the storm. Upon leaving, I saw what looked like a lovely little green tree snake. “Don’t move,” one of the Malaysian cafe owners called out. “It’s a deadly viper, and it can kill you in seconds.”
I was reminded today of my trip to Kuching last November when I found the first evidence of Spring on my back deck. A snake skin. Now, I have a bit of an Indiana Jones relationship with snakes. They scare me, and always have. It goes right back to when we were kids in country Queensland and come summer, our backyard was full of poisonous king browns. My parents, being tough-love 1970s types, offered us little comfort: “If you see a snake, you freeze like a statute and you call out ‘mum’ and then you keep watching it so we know where it’s gone.” And then dad, who is a bit of a Steve Irwin, would march up to the deadly serpent, grab it, bag it and dump it on the farm to eat the rats. Lizards, on the other hand, I love. They’ve got legs.
So, it came as quite a shock one night a few years back when I was having a barbecue on my beloved back deck to feel all the hackles on my neck rise, in that really creepy fashion jsut before something bad’s about to happen. I turned around and there she was, slithering down the railings. I decided it was time to conquer my fear and named my snake Anastascia, deciding she was my sex goddess, meaning whenever she made an appearance, things would improve in my bedroom, so to speak. And, miraculously they did.
I won’t go into details but suffice to say, we both had a wonderful summer. For the record, I’m not alone in my thinking. Just this week, a Townsville couple went to the media with their story about two pythons copulating in their ceiling. According to Ron Degenhart: “You and your missus could be going hammer and tongs in the bedroom, while the snakes are going at it upstairs as well.”
Yes, things were going great guns for me, until the night Anastascia died. It was a scorching February night and I was laying in bed, clad only in undies and a singlet, drinking wine (yes, I know how to party). I heard what I thought were two possums fighting right outside my bedroom window. And then “boom!”, my neighbour Dave – a bit of a bogan – burst through my front gates and leapt down in front on my bedroom windows, grabbing a massive python which was in the process of eating his cat. I stood there, a little tipsy if I have to admit it, in my undies and singlet, glass of wine still firmly in hand, watching in slow-motion as Dave wrestled the cat from the snake’s mouth. It was Anastascia having dinner. Dave screamed “it bit me, it bit me”, the cat went flying into the night, and Dave stood before me, snake dangling from his hands. For the record the cat, not the snake, had bitten Dave.
The only words I could mutter were “you’re not leaving that snake here” and thus, Anastascia met an untimely death. (Which, for the record, is a great shame as Anastascia was the Indigenous species in this scenario, not the cat, but circumstances had already spiralled beyond my control).
Around the same time, my summer of sex abruptly stopped. So, it was with pure delight that I found my new snake skin this week. I’ve called her Sylvia. I haven’t see her yet, and Dave and his cat have since moved on. But I’m certainly looking forward to a long, hot, summer.