I had to wonder if mountains have ears and Mt Edward decided to reward my loyalty. There’s a wildlife encounter I’ve always longed for and in March, 2018, it finally came to pass, although not in a way I’d ever envisaged. Initially, it evoked terror rather than delight.
It all started six months ago when I decided to build my fitness on steep terrain by frequent repetitions of the Mt Edward summit walk at Lake Moogerah, near Boonah.
The walk to the top may only be three kilometres, but the path is often overgrown and in many places, rocky and steep.
Views from the dam wall and the picnic grounds help to ease the pain though
To keep me motivated, I planned to record as many arachnid and reptile species as possible. This was encouraged by the purchase of a magnificent new reference book, A Field Guide of Australian Spiders (Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson).
I didn’t think it was possible to increase my passion for spiders and then this guide arrived on my doorstep, or should I say, was thrown on my doorstep. I suppose if I wanted my parcels gently placed rather than tossed, I should remove the giant golden orb weaver web spanning the path. More than one burly courier has been intimidated by Charlotte’s impressive architecture.
After ogling its glossy photographs in rapture, my infatuation soared to dizzying new heights. I became even more fascinated by the incredible variation in behaviour and physical appearance of these eight legged creatures. How can one not be entranced by their multiple eyes, their amazing web building skills, and glistening, iridescent, patterned, hairy bodies?
“Are you mad?” I hear you ask. If it means I love spiders, then definitely.
Perhaps I need to defend my passion with a childhood flashback. In the 1980s, I spent a memorable year sharing a cramped workers’ cottage on a cattle property north-west of Rockhampton with my parents and younger twin brothers. We did not have mains electricity and due to fuel costs, could only use a generator for two hours in the morning and evening. My narrow camp stretcher bed sat on an unscreened verandah. While reading for hours by kerosene lantern, I was kept company by a huge hairy huntsman spider feasting on insects drawn to the flickering light. Rather than frighten me, her regular presence was a comfort and a form of simple entertainment to a sometimes lonely twelve year old. I saw her as a friend, not a foe. No doubt, reading the charming Charlotte’s Web (E.B.White) several years earlier encouraged this relationship also.
If you are a spider fan, the Mt Edward summit walk is the place to go. Stop just about anywhere on the path and you’ll find one. Here are a few examples of the many species I’ve seen there.
Given that microscopic examination of genitalia is one of the most important ways to identify species, I hope you’ll forgive me for not being exact. I thought I’d be more adept at identification once I had the field guide, but sadly, I am even more overwhelmed. I have a great deal to learn.
Many Scorpion-tailed Spiders (Arachnura higginsi) can be found at the summit of Mt Edward.
The much larger female stays on the web during the daytime. Juveniles or recently moulted adults can be bright red or yellow but most adults are usually dull coloured. When startled, the female’s tail can be flexed towards its head like a scorpion’s attack position.
Most of my interesting wildlife observations have occurred while I’ve stopped to catch my breath, so I guess I should be thankful for increasing age and bodily deterioration. It’s often when quietly resting that curious wildlife reappear, or I actually take time to notice them.
While resting on the ascent to Mt Edward summit, this young Yellow-faced Whip Snake ( Demansia psammophis) slid out of a crack right near my feet.
While they are often mistaken for eastern brown snakes, the distinctive black comma below the eye is a distinguishing feature. They are venomous, but not regarded as highly dangerous and like most snakes will not bite unless provoked. Bites can cause intense pain and swelling.
While on another rest stop I witnessed a Robust Rainbow Skink (Carlia schmeltzii ) catching and devouring juicy green prey.
Despite the distinct lack of water on this walk, powdery dragonflies are a frequent sight, and if you venture down to the spillway in the lower sections of the Moogerah picnic grounds, more species along with damselflies can be spotted.
Robber flies, butterflies and moths are also common, as well as their larvae.
And there is always fungi to find if you look hard enough.
“But what made you scream, and why do you think mountains have ears?” I hear you ask impatiently. Well, it wasn’t a spider, or even a snake, even though I saw many of these. We’ll come to that terrifying incident soon.
Five sweaty ascents later, I was on the verge of giving up further Mt Edward walks. After completing what was meant to be my final ascent, I dropped by a tourist information centre in the region to search for maps. I apologised for my disheveled, red-faced appearance and explained I had just finished the Mt Edward walk. I wasn’t expecting the following response. Most information centre staff are bursting with positivity.
“You didn’t do that walk by yourself, did you? It’s so hot and steep. The view isn’t worth it. It’s a horrible walk.”
Now in the past, when I’ve heard people defending the delights of a particular walk to a harsh critic, I’ve been amused, and I admit, a little judgemental. Why bother to argue about it? After all, like book and film choices, walking can be very subjective. I am usually happy to accept that people don’t find all my walks appealing. However, on this occasion, I found myself defending the walk as though it was my child or a best friend.
After all the exciting wildlife sightings I had made, I was feeling extremely protective of Mt Edward and Lake Moogerah. I also had a lot of emotional investment in the area. After spending most of my life living in dry, flat regions, my first view of the peaks across the lake about ten years ago reminded me of scenes from more mountainous countries – places I’ve dreamed of and may never see in person.
During week days and non-holiday season, Lake Moogerah is a calming retreat. I have also camped there on a few occasions, and marvelled at the sunsets and sunrises over its still waters.
My reaction to her words led me to ponder the nature of our relationships with various walks. In some ways they are similar to our human relationships. Given my barely existent social life, you could even argue that specific walks are my replacement friends.
Some walks we just keep repeating mainly due to their convenient location. Even though they don’t challenge us or seem to offer something new, you can rely on them to be comfortable and safe. They are reassuringly predictable.
Some walks are long and physically arduous but the effort is worth it for the guaranteed magnificent views and wildlife sightings, or the satisfaction of persevering to the end. The great effort required is always rewarded.
Some walks are enjoyable but offer no incentive to return. There is no desire to repeat them even though there was nothing particularly unpleasant about them. They are once only fond encounters.
Some walks you want to abandon because they seem to require far too much effort for so little return. Sometimes, though, when you revisit them many years later after a significant break, you may notice aspects you missed the first time, or the walk itself has changed. Or maybe, you have changed.
Like when meeting people for the first time, the initial experience of a walk may not show you all it has to offer. The conditions of the day – the season, the weather, your fitness and mood, your companions, or whether it is a popular holiday time – can all affect the first impression of a walk. People and walks hold potential that we can only sometimes discover by repeated exploration.
Some walks we never want to end; some, we can’t wait to be over.
Yes, the Mt Edwards summit walk is exposed and hot. Yes, it’s steep and there are sections of scrub where the views are monotonous. Yes, it is often overgrown, but after hearing the negative response of the information centre person, I felt compelled to return the very next day to further prove how rewarding this walk can be. It was on this occasion that I received the much desired wildlife encounter, so I really do need to thank the lovely woman who dubbed Mt Edward Summit “The Horrible Walk” for renewed motivation.
So, what was this terrifying beast that had me temporarily shaking?
After a dizzying ascent in humid heat, I was relieved to pass through the final grass tree grove and reach the summit. Some days it really is a horrible walk.
I stripped off my sweat-soaked, long-sleeved shirt and hung it over a branch to dry, collapsed on a rock, guzzled water, and berated myself for being so stubborn.
Through my dehydration haze, I heard a rustling sound coming from over the cliff edge. Thinking it was probably a goanna, I stayed sprawled on my rock. I already had hundreds of goanna pictures, and anyway, based on past experience it would probably be gone by the time I unpacked my camera.
The rustling and scrambling became louder though, and a musky waft entered my nostrils. Perhaps it wasn’t a goanna after all? My interest was piqued. Out came the camera.
It was then I saw the terrifying sight – a marauding marsupial, a killer koala – heading straight for me!
Now before you start judging me for fearing a cute and furry Australian icon, let me attempt a little defence. Koalas may look benign and cuddly, but they have strong muscular bodies and powerful claws. Why was it running straight at me? Wild possibilities raced through my mind.
I’ve known a few relatives and friends who turn into Godzilla when woken suddenly from a lazy nap (including myself) – sweet, mild mannered people who wouldn’t normally harm a fly. Had I disturbed Conan the Koala’s beauty sleep and he’d woken up cranky?
Then I noticed his eye infection and realised he was probably sight-impaired. This did not ease my nerves though. If he couldn’t see me in his path, what would he do when he finally realised I was right in front of him – defend himself with those powerful sharp claws? I shrieked and scrambled away.
What did Conan do next? Did he follow me and attack? No, it seems I terrified him just as much as he surprised me and he clambered straight back over the cliff edge.
My fear quickly turned to horror. Had I murdered Conan? Had my screech sent him plummeting to his death? Initially, I’d feared he might be a killer koala, but maybe the truth was that I was a koala killer? Tentatively, I peeked over the edge. Luckily, poor misunderstood Conan was still hanging onto the rocky face with those powerful claws.
It was then I thought about those news reports where parched wild koalas have approached humans for water bottle drinks during heatwaves or bushfires. Was he attracted to the smell of the water I was drinking? Just in case, I poured the last dregs from my water bottle into a rock depression above him. I removed myself from the path and from a distant vantage point watched through my camera zoom. Within a few minutes, Conan was back up on the summit and following the same trail.
I watched him sniff the base of various trees before launching himself up a trunk. I realised that Conan was probably just following his regular scent trail back to favourite trees and I had just happened to be in his way.
Then began a long session of koala scratching and stretching. Safe from his strong claws, I now had more time to observe his poor coat condition and advanced age. I wondered how many times he’d made this same journey up the steep cliff.
Later I checked with my national parks ranger friend (thanks, Robert, for patiently putting up with my questions) to ask if there was an animal rescue clinic I should contact. However, given Conan was still very strong and active and it would be difficult to locate and catch him in this environment (a traumatic experience in itself that would stress him further) he was probably not a candidate for rescue. It is usually in urban areas where injured or sick koalas are able to be helped. I was naturally concerned at his condition, but sadly that is the way with wild animals. You can’t save them all. Conan was an old koala that had probably lived successfully in the area for many years already.
Before this close encounter, I had only seen three koalas in the wild. One high in a tree on a relative’s farm, one up a tree at a pit stop while on a driving trip, and one splattered across the road. However, I’d never seen one on an official bush walk before and certainly didn’t expect to see one climb up a rocky cliff face and run towards me.
For years I’ve scanned trunks for claw marks and the base of trees for their distinctive scats. I’ve strained my neck in vain searching for their fluffy round bottoms. I like to imagine the mountain heard my words of defence and rewarded my loyalty with this heart pumping close encounter – an experience I’ll remember for many years to come, albeit with some sadness and a tinge of embarrassment.