Coffs Harbour Adventure
Because I was born and bred in Australia, many people might think that I have cuddled a koala or had a pet joey (baby kangaroo) or watched a platypus swimming in a creek, but I have done none of these things. I have seen them in nature reserves and on television, but it isn’t really the same, is it? During times of drought, kangaroos, foxes, rabbits and other animals can be seen on the outskirts of towns and cities, searching for food. Occasionally, they are even seen in suburbia, especially kangaroos. But it is in the wild, their natural habitat, that these animals, and many others, take on a special meaning and characteristic to me.
In the early 1980s, my friend, Wayne, and I were both out of work. We decided that since we were unemployed, we might as well be in an idyllic place such as Coffs Harbour, where the weather was also warmer. Wayne’s father and three of his uncles lived there so we knew that we weren’t going to a place where we knew no one. We knew also that our chances of getting work there were even less than here, but we were young and wanted out of ‘Struggle Town’ as Queanbeyan, where we lived, was affectionately known. Have you heard the ‘Choirboys’ song?’ – that’s us, folks.
So, in a make-or-break frenzy, we sold what we couldn’t carry and headed off.
One of Wayne’s uncles, nicknamed Honk, lived alone in an isolated shack on a little block of land in the rainforest, a few kilometres inland from ‘Coffs’. The house stood on the knob of a hill and Honk’s surname is Nicholls, so he called his little haven, ‘Nicks Knob’. He even answered the phone that way – “Nicks Knob.”
Honk took us both in and we paid him a small amount for our lodging and shared the grocery bill and whatnot.
Wayne and I then set about looking for work. We checked the local papers and drove into town and walked the streets of the industrial areas, asking if anything was available. Coffs Harbour is a real tourist town, and every man and his dog wants to live there, but there just isn’t enough work to go around. Wayne soon tired of this and became homesick and, after a couple of months, decided to head back. I decided that I would stay on and continue to give it my best shot.
During my stay with Honk, I learned so much about nature in general, and about animals in particular. Animals that I had never seen before. There were butcher birds, which are pied like magpies only smaller, which used to come up onto the veranda and Honk fed them shredded cheese. He said to me, “You watch them, Ray. They have to ‘kill’ it before they eat it.” And, sure enough, they pounded the cheese on the railing before eating it. We always knew when there was a goanna in the yard, for the butcher birds squawked madly. We went outside when we heard this ruckus and watched as the butcher birds divebombed and swooped until they had driven the goanna off.
Honk showed me a video tape of a goanna he had filmed. It had swallowed ten or eleven chicken eggs whole. As the last egg passed from its mouth to the back of its throat, it could be heard clicking against the one behind it.
One day, we were sitting on the veranda, drinking beer, when a goanna sauntered across the lawn. Honk took a piece of chop fat and enveloped it in a steel beer bottle top and threw it on the lawn. The goanna swallowed the bottle top, containing the fat, with no trouble. “Won’t the bottle top cut his intestines to pieces?” I asked.
“No.” said Honk. “His stomach acid will eat away the bottle top and it will pass through him.”
Another evening, while sitting on the veranda – you guessed it, drinking beer – wearing our Coffs Harbour uniform: shorts, t-shirt and bare feet, a goanna came up the steps onto the veranda and Honk said, “If you sit quiet and remain still he will lick your feet.”
“What if he bites me?” I asked, nervously.
“Don’t worry.” He said. “He knows that you are too big to eat. He just wants to smell you.”
I sat there in trepidation, but trusting Honk, while the goanna licked between my toes and when he had satisfied his curiosity, he moved on.
We had just finished our dinner one night and were talking at the kitchen table, when we heard a soft, clomp, clomp, clomp on the veranda. We peered out and saw a possum, limping along the veranda. Honk suggested that he was probably hungry and, because of his damaged leg, was having trouble finding food of his own. I opened the door carefully and placed a few slices of apple on the floor for him and went back inside. We watched as he ate his meal and off he went. Clomp, clomp, clomp.
The next night he returned and I took some more apple out for him. This time, I stayed outside, at a polite distance, and watched while he nervously ate, with one eye on me all the while. By this time we had named him Gimpy, because of his limp. Eventually, after he had gained confidence and bitten me a few times, I was able to hand feed him.
If you ever saw the television series, ‘Skippy the bush Kangaroo’, you will remember the opening scene where Sonny supposedly whistled to Skippy using a gum leaf. This sound is actually made by the whipbird. A very elusive bird. I had heard the sound several times, since moving into Honk’s but had never seen it. One day, we were out gathering firewood and Honk spotted one and pointed it out to me. I couldn’t believe that such a small bird – about the size of a swallow – could make such a loud sound. It echoes through the forest like a shotgun blast.
The satin bower bird, so named because of its shiny, black plumage, is a funny fellow indeed. The male builds an elaborate bower (nest) on the ground and adorns it with blue trinkets to attract a mate. For some strange reason, these trinkets must be blue. It steals any small, blue thing that you happen to leave lying around. Cloths pegs, drinking straws, the blue caps and rings that come on milk bottles or juice bottles, buttons, anything that is blue and small enough for him to carry off. By the way, the female is green and is often mistaken for the catbird.
Catbird? I hear you say. Yes, and well named too. When you hear the call of this bird you would swear that there was a cat nearby. Some people panic when they hear this sound, thinking that someone has left a kitten on their doorstep.
The mention of one bird, the curlew, still brings a round of mirth to any Nicholls gathering. The curlew is a shorebird with a long, narrow, curved bill, similar to that of an ibis. Honk was a bit of a prankster and liked to tell young, male visitors of the ‘dangers’ of the curlew. He had three or four young men visiting and they decided that rather than overcrowd his small house, they would camp on the front lawn in a tent that they had brought with them. He told them to be careful of the curlew as it was known to be very aggressive and was fond of testicles. He said that it was afraid of water (it’s a shorebird, remember) and that if they had a dish of water near their tent, it would stay clear of them. Guess what they placed in front of their tent.
On another occasion, I came home to Honk’s place from town. As I stepped up onto the veranda, a red-bellied black snake slithered up between the house and the veranda. I took off as fast as I could in one direction and the snake took off as fast as it could in the opposite direction. I don’t know who got the bigger fright, the snake or me, but I will remember it all the days of my life. I wonder if he did.
I have very fond memories of my time in Coffs Harbour and I could go on about them for a very long time, but I’m sure that you have other things to do.
– Ray Lye
Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Australia.
published: July 2007