Of pathways and picnics

9 October, 2021

Day 9 of Writing Nangak Tamboree.

Today, I’m walking. And walking. Didn’t have much of a plan, but it’s evolved into following every path I find, around the top of the Sports Field Lake. It’s a Saturday, so there are lots more people around, and since we still aren’t allowed to have friends over or go to cafes, everyone is meeting up outside. Picnics are permitted, under certain circumstances. So every park I visit, every open space, is dotted with people having picnics. Even people who hate picnics are having picnics.

Not so much here, because I’m not sure these places register with people as a destination, but there are many small groups scattered around campus, and I come across them in odd spots along the creek. Here, it’s more about movement – there are people strolling along with kids in pushers, cycling, or walking dogs, or bird-spotting. There’s even a bloody trail bike roaring along (no helmet).

By the edge of the lake, where there’s a kind of beach (dirt, not sand), someone’s left two outdoor chairs, and there’s a woman sitting there, reading an important-looking document, talking on the phone, and sipping on a takeaway coffee. She looks like she’s parachuted in from a Brunswick Street café. I can’t imagine where she came from – or the coffee.

Two chairs overlooking a lake

I walk discreetly around her and vow to come back to write in this spot later. But for now I keep going, following a track that meanders through casuarinas and Prickly Moses, following the curve of the lake.

Track through casuarina trees

People, and presumably creatures, have made tracks all through here. I follow them all, around where the lake narrows at a little wooden footbridge, disappears under the road, and then pops out the other side to join the campus lake system. But I don’t follow it north (is it north? it feels north). There’s another track winding up what looks like a headland. Pukekos squawk hilariously but they don’t seem too perturbed by my presence.

path beside lake

Someone asked me the other day why I call them pukekos. Australians know them as Purple Swamp Hens. But in normal times I spend a great deal of time in NZ, where they are called pukeko, and they are iconic. You can buy pukeko fridge magnets and t-shirts at the airport. We have a sequinned pukeko Christmas tree decoration. New Zealanders think of them as uniquely theirs and my Kiwi friends and family visiting here in the past have been shocked that they dare to exist across the Tasman. As if I’ve stolen them. Like the pavlova. They are dear, funny birds, and there are many around these waterways, and if I was one I’d rather be known as a pukeko than a Swamp Hen.

Pukeko

So today the pukeko and I go about our business, not bothering each other. I scout around the headland. Three little kids rush past in their Speedos, parents trundling behind with pool noodles and beach towels, and even though it’s pretty obvious I ask the kids if they’re going for a swim.

‘Yes!’ they shout. ‘They made us stop and have a picnic and now we’re going back in.’

‘Is the water cold?’

‘Freezing!’

Not sure I’d swim here – at least, maybe not in October.

I wonder if these are the kids who made this excellent cubby house on the high ground.

Cubby house made of sticks leaning against gum tree

If you grow up near places like this, making cubby houses in the bush is a full-time occupation. I’ve made plenty in my time.

I keep on, following the track. It’s a hot day, and I’ve come out without a hat or sunblock, like the genius I am, but here there’s dappled shade and a breeze off the water. Wish I had a picnic lunch. Down near the shore, I peer through the undergrowth to spy on a darter drying its wings on its own personal island. At least, I think it’s a darter. It’s about the size of a B-52. It doesn’t dart, or swim about pretending to be a snake, as they do, but it’s having a grand old time.

Darter on rock

The track leads around to the sports grounds, which I decide to explore some other time. I circle back to the footbridge, prop myself on the now deserted chairs for a scribble, and then keep randomly following any narrow trail that presents itself, until I’m back on the bike path.

I like how people make use of places: the grass flattened by dozens of picnic blankets and socially distanced bottoms; the cubby house of sticks; the chairs picked up from the side of some road and brought here; the fallen log that every kid clambers along; the little spot someone’s made by the lake where you step through the reeds and balance on an old timber pallet and watch the water; and the paths trodden by thousands of feet, enticing me to keep walking.

A track through long grass

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